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Sunday, April 20

N.J. soldier marks quiet holiday after return to Fort Bliss

By The (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post

EL PASO, Texas - Former prisoner of war Sgt. James Riley enjoyed a subdued Easter Sunday with his mother here as they awaited word on when the Army sergeant can return to South Jersey. The quiet holiday, which marked Riley`s first full day back in the United States, was a sharp contrast to the raucous celebration that greeted him and four other ex-POWs Saturday night.

The 31-year-old mechanic from Pennsauken, N.J., is somewhat stunned by the national attention he and four others from his unit have received since their capture in Iraq on March 23, said a family spokesman, Army Maj. Nathan Banks.

"He doesn`t even know the magnitude of how this has gone,'' Banks said. Riley could be back in Pennsauken as soon as Tuesday night, Banks said, although officials at Fort Bliss said medical tests could extend his stay in Texas until later in the week.

When he does come home, his agenda could include a White House dinner on Thursday, a hometown parade and a somber memorial service for a family member who died shortly after he was captured.

The polite, reserved soldier isn`t the kind of person to naturally embrace the massive public attention he and fellow former POWs from Fort Bliss` 507th Maintenance Company have received so far, Banks said.

That`s an attitude shared by the soldier`s father, Athol, who remained in Pennsauken while his wife, Jane, traveled to southwest Texas to greet their son.

Athol Riley refuses to believe his family`s experience makes them special, and he won`t allow himself to celebrate publicly. "Everybody wants us to do cartwheels across the front lawn and I find that hard to do because he lost half his unit over there,'' he said. Nine members of the 507th were killed during the March 23 ambush.

Athol Riley hopes his son will stay in the military and continue building a solid career. And he`s looking forward to spending some time working with his son on the handyman projects they enjoy, such as welding frames for birdcages.

He doesn`t know how much his son will tell him about his experiences in captivity during the war. "He doesn`t really say a whole lot about soldiering anyway,'' Athol Riley said.

The five former POWs from the 507th received heroes` welcomes Saturday night from a noisy crowd of close to 2,000 when a hulking C-17 Globemaster III medical transport plane returned the soldiers to the United States from Germany. El Paso, a city of about 565,000, is home to many retired military personnel, and residents turned out in force to see the soldiers` return.

"It was like a dream come true,'' U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., who represents Pennsauken, said Sunday. "A lot of us had been so worried and concerned about this that the exuberance that they showed (Saturday) made us all smile and feel good.''

Banks, the Riley family`s casualty assistance officer, accompanied Jane Riley. He and the young Riley had never met. "It`s the final piece to the puzzle, meeting the man that everyone`s talking about,'' Banks said.

The arrival here was the next-to-last stop on Riley`s long journey home, which began when Marines found him and six other POWs - including two Army helicopter pilots from another Texas unit - north of Baghdad on April 13. After his rescue, Riley traveled to Kuwait, and then to an American military base in Germany.

Riley, 31, still faces a medical evaluation and a debriefing here, said Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt. The medical evaluation, which includes a psychological evaluation, was likely to begin Monday and could last several days, she said.

Riley and his mother shunned publicity on Sunday, remaining on the secure grounds of the 1.2 million-acre Army base. They talked for several hours and took a walk among the utilitarian concrete buildings on base, Banks said. Riley also stepped outside to smoke Marlboros. His sister, Katherine, sent a carton of cigarettes with Banks for her brother, said Banks.

The Easter holiday turned the focus Sunday from celebration to gratitude that God had brought home the POWs alive. An outdoor, sunrise ceremony at Fort Bliss drew 300 into the near-freezing morning.

Riley, meanwhile, faces a busy schedule in the days ahead. The two U.S. senators from Texas plan to visit him and the other former POWs on Monday. The sergeant and his family are invited to a White House dinner with the president and first lady on Thursday. And if Riley is able to return to New Jersey by Wednesday, he faces a somber event - a memorial service honoring the sergeant`s sister Mary, who died five days after his capture after having spent more than two months in a coma.

The service is scheduled on what would have been Mary Riley`s 30th birthday.