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Sunday, April 13

For families of freed POWs, an answer to their prayers

By Charles K. Wilson | El Paso Times

Palm Sunday broke bright and blue for the families of five soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company, their prayers answered before their eyes as the American prisoners were released after three weeks of captivity in Iraq.

From dramatic TV images, a number of families from Fort Bliss, home of the 507th, and Fort Hood, Texas, home of two captured helicopter pilots, saw their loved ones safe and healthy before or just as casualty officers arrived at their doorsteps to deliver the good news.

``Today is a great day for the families, comrades, loved ones of the seven missing in action who are free,'' President Bush said at the White House.

Soldiers from the 507th released are Spc. Shoshana N. Johnson, 30, of El Paso; Spc. Edgar Adan Hernandez, 21, Mission, 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.; from the 507th. The two Apache helicopter pilots are Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Florida; and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young, 26, Lithia Springs, Ga.

Johnson spoke with her family by telephone Sunday evening from Kuwait City.

``She's crying, saying `I got shot,' '' her mother, Eunice Johnson, said as family members talked with the soldier.

And while worried about being wounded in the ankle and the calf, her mother said, Shoshana also was distressed by matters of the familiar.

``You're worrying about your hair!'' Eunice Johnson exclaimed in disbelief when Shoshana Johnson expressed concern about being photographed with braids that needed to be redone.

Shoshana Johnson then spoke with her 2-year-old daughter, Janelle.

``Hi, Mommy, you've got your arms and two legs,'' Janelle told her mother.

The news of their release was bittersweet in El Paso.

Nine members of the 507th were killed in the March 23 ambush in which six soldiers were taken prisoner. Several families had funerals last week, and Fort Bliss had a moving, communitywide memorial Friday for all nine soldiers. The funeral of Pvt. Ruben Estrella-Soto of El Paso is scheduled for today.

``On a day like today, we are certainly grateful and overjoyed at the news and at the prospect at having them reunited with their loved ones,'' said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso. ``(But) we want to remember not all the families are that fortunate, and honor the nine comrades that have fallen.''

Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said U.S. Marines were alerted to the POWs' location by their captors, who were a few miles south of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. A spokesman said the soldiers were found near Samarra, from where they were flown by helicopter to a waiting C-130 south of Baghdad.

The soldiers were taken to Kuwait City, where their conditions were listed as good, according to Army Lt. Col. Ruth Lee. Three, including Shoshana Johnson, were treated for injuries, Lee said. Johnson had gunshot wounds to both feet caused by a single bullet, The Washington Post reported. The former prisoners' next stop, which could come as early as today, will be an American air base in Germany for debriefing and medical care.

The news of the rescue spread quickly across El Paso. The reaction for many was relief (and surprise) that the seven Americans would be kept alive by their Iraqi captors.

``I didn't think they had a chance because of who we're dealing with, but you still have to have hope,'' said Kateena Brooks, a military spouse, as she walked with her 6-year-old son, Mitchell, on the Fort Bliss grounds. ``I found out this morning, and I'm excited. I'm so overjoyed for the families.''

Eastsider Josie Lugo said the release was a miracle. ``I kind of lost hope after hearing about those others who were found dead,'' Lugo said. ``I was just praying somehow for a miracle, and here it is.'' For the families, the news was unbridled joy.

Pfc. Hudson's brother, Anthony Hudson of Alamogordo, celebrated throughout the morning, unable to sit still.

``I hope (the other POWs' families) are feeling the same way I am. Oh, my God!'' he said. Sunday also brought a reversal of the emotions for the family of Hernandez, neighbor Jesse Cantu said.

``I was here the Sunday they first received the news (of Hernandez's capture) and you could cut the sorrow in the room with a knife. That's how much you could feel it, and it was a very sad place to be,'' Cantu said. ``But today is a very, very happy day.''

Prayer and faith, many said Sunday, was the line that tied the soldiers, their families, the military and political leaders to a single cause: getting the seven American POWs home as the war on the battlefield began to wind down.

Johnson's family received word that their daughter was safe and alive early Sunday.

``We are ecstatic that not only she is safe, but all the POWs are back in U.S. hands,'' said Elsie Morgan, Johnson family spokeswoman. ``We thank God for watching over them. We are grateful for all worldwide prayers.'' Reyes, who visited with the Johnson family and spoke with the Hudson family, said, ``They are amazing people, keeping faith in the strongest way. They are just remarkable people.'' Sunday was a ``much better day'' than Friday, Reyes said in reference to the Fort Bliss memorial. Sunday, he said, his family shouted and hugged with the confirmation the seven Americans were the missing POWs.

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., called the news ``a wonderful Palm Sunday blessing for Joseph (Hudson), his mother and his family.'' U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, ``This is an incredible day of joy for the families, Fort Bliss, Fort Hood families and the nation.''

The ambush of the 507th in Nasiriyah remains the costliest attack on U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nine members of the 507th and 14 members of a Marine unit sent to try to rescue the 507th are now listed as killed in action. The 23 deaths represent almost one-quarter of the U.S. deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom, listed at 115 Sunday by the Pentagon. Sunday, the Pentagon classified three more Marines listed as missing from the 507th rescue attempt as killed in action. Their identities were not released. Three Marines from the rescue effort remain classified as ``duty status-whereabouts unknown,'' or missing.

In all, the 507th lost almost 20 percent of its force of about 100 soldiers in the March 23 attack: six taken prisoner, four wounded and nine killed.

Pfc. Jessica Lynch was rescued by U.S. forces on April 1 from a Nasiriyah hospital, where the bodies of nine soldiers (seven from the 507th) were found in shallow graves.

(Contributing: El Paso Times reporters Laura Cruz, David Peregrino, Maribel Villalva and Victor R. Martinez.)