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Iraq Journals

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Friday, April 18

Ex-POW advises Iraq war counterparts to get counseling

By Maribel Villalva | El Paso Times

Melissa Coleman is uniquely qualified to advise the former prisoners of war from the 507th Maintenance Company as they return to Fort Bliss, Texas, on Saturday.

"Stay in counseling as long as you can" said Coleman, a former Fort Bliss soldier who spent 33 days in a Baghdad prison during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

"For me, there was no decompression period for my psychological well-being. I hope they do that for these POWs."

Coleman - then Melissa Rathbun-Nealy - was a heavy equipment operator with the 233rd Transportation Company when she and another soldier, David Lockett, took a wrong turn and were captured by Iraqis near Khafji, Saudi Arabia.

So, when the 507th Maintenance Company, also from Fort Bliss, was ambushed March 23, Coleman said she couldn't pull herself away from the television for the next three weeks.

"My kids would come in the room and say, 'Why do you keep watching that?' and I'd tell them, 'Because that's what Momma went through,'" she said.

Twelve years later, Coleman, 33, has left the Army and cares for her two children and husband in San Antonio. But she said she still deals with some unresolved emotions.

"I'm still decompressing," she said from her home. "Sometimes I wake up sweating. The other night, I had a dream that I was in the middle of combat. I could hear horns beeping, warning us of a chemical attack, but then I realized it was just my alarm clock."

When the ex-POWs who were recovered Sunday return, Coleman said the attention will be overwhelming. She remembered her own homecoming.

"It was a whirlwind. On one side, it was wonderful to be home with your family, but the media attention can be hard."

As with ex-POW Jessica Lynch, Coleman was offered movie and book contracts, but she didn't accept any of them.

"I just wanted to come home and be with my family and husband," said Coleman, who married Michael Coleman just two weeks after her return. "We had been engaged, but the sheer trauma of the event kind of hastened things along."

Melissa Nicholson, a licensed professional counselor in El Paso, said friends and family members can help the families cope with the recent events by giving them all space.

"We all want to be there for the families right now, but down the line, they'll need our support, too. So, maybe instead of all going at the same time, we can wait a little bit," she said.

Coleman also encourages the ex-POWs to write down anything that they can remember about the ordeal in case they ever want to write a book.

"When I was in that cell, I used to count the number of tiles," she said. "I can still picture the prison very vividly."