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Sunday, April 13

Army town is elated as POWs of the 507th are freed

By Laura Cruz | El Paso Times

FORT BLISS, Texas - After weeks of sorrow and worry, Fort Bliss, home of the 507th Maintenance Company, felt elation Sunday as news spread rapidly across the post that the company's five remaining captured members were safe in Iraq.

The military community, which has felt every emotion a human heart can withstand over the last three weeks, sighed with relief, grateful that a second memorial service like the one Friday would not be needed for the five prisoners of war who were captured in a March 23 ambush in Iraq.

``It's been a pull-and-push effect for the post,'' said retired Col. Charles Cranford. ``Elation one day; heartbreak the next. ... I expect the post will celebrate this.'' He said his first words when he learned about the rescue were ``praise the Lord!''

``I had anticipated those young people would die,'' he said. ``I guess I was being very pessimistic.''

The freed POWs from the 507th, who appeared to be in relatively good condition, are Spc. Shoshana N. Johnson, 30, El Paso, Texas; Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, Alton, Texas; Spc. Joseph Neal Hudson, 23, Alamogordo, N.M.; Pfc. Patrick Wayne Miller, 23, Park City, Kan.; and Sgt. James J. Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J. Two Army helicopter pilots from Fort Hood, Texas, also were rescued.

``This is wonderful news for all of the families, and we rejoice with them. Today on Palm Sunday, we rejoice with the news that will make a happy Easter,'' said Col. Ben Hobson, Fort Bliss chief of staff. ``But we must not forget those families that were not so fortunate. They remain in our thoughts and in our prayers.'' On Friday, thousands of people said their final farewells to the nine soldiers who were killed in the same ambush that led to the capture of the former POWs.

The nine are Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto, 18, El Paso, Texas; Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata, 35, Pecos, Texas; Spc. James M. Kiehl, 22, Comfort, Texas; Master Sgt. Robert J. Dowdy, 38, Cleveland; Pfc. Lori Ann Piestewa, 23, Tuba City, Ariz.; Pvt. Brandon U. Sloan, 19, Bedford Heights, Ohio; Sgt. Donald R. Walters, 33, Salem, Ore.; Spc. Jamaal R. Addison, 22, Roswell, Ga.; and Pfc. Howard Johnson II, 21, Mobile, Ala.

Four other members of the unit were injured and have since returned to the United States. Another member, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was also captured in the ambush but rescued by U.S. special operations forces in an April 1 raid of an Iraqi hospital.

The post began the war last month with excitement from the success of knocking down Iraqi missiles using the post's Patriot missile defense system. But that pride was tempered by suspicion that a Patriot may have hit a British jet fighter. Emotions sunk lower when the post learned its maintenance company was attacked and that some of its soldiers had been killed, others were missing and five were taken prisoner.

Spirits were lifted when commandos rescued Lynch, who was also a prisoner, though she had been listed only as missing up until her rescue. But optimism about the captured soldiers dropped three days later, when the deaths of seven company members were confirmed by the Department of Defense, adding to the two who had been confirmed dead earlier.

Military spouse Kateena Brooks, who was walking with her 6-year-old son, Mitchell, around the post Sunday, said she did not anticipate the cheerful news.

``I didn't think they had a chance because of who we're dealing with, but you still have to have hope,'' Brooks said. ``I found out this morning, and I'm excited. I'm so overjoyed for the families.''

Col. Fred Hudson, a Fort Bliss chaplain, said the good news prompted him to change his Sunday morning sermon.

``I was going to talk on one subject, but I realized my subject matter was not appropriate, so I asked the chief of staff to share the news with the congregation,'' Hudson said with a large smile. ``It is such good, exciting, wonderful news.''