KUWAIT CITY — Unexpectedly released by Iraqi troops, seven U.S. POWs basked in a warm welcome Sunday and were declared in good shape after their 22 days of imprisonment.
The seven were flown to Kuwait within hours after Marines recovered them south of Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. Three were examined for injuries; the other four were assessed and found to have no problems, said Army Lt. Col. Ruth Lee.
The soldiers received applause and hugs from Marines when they arrived at an air base in southern Iraq. From there, the seven were taken by helicopter to a base near Kut and then flown to a military airport south of Kuwait City.
“Today’s a great day for the families and comrades and loved ones of the seven … who are free,” President Bush said in Washington.
Marine pilots who evacuated the POWs from Iraq said Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of Fort Bliss, Texas, had been shot in the ankle, and Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas, had been shot in the elbow.
Johnson, the only woman among the freed prisoners, had limped in slippers on her way to a transport aircraft after her rescue and wore a bandage on her ankle.
They — along with Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J., Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, Alamogordo, N.M. and Army Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, Park City, Kan. — were all members of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company. The five were taken prisoner when Iraqis ambushed their convoy March 23 outside the southern city of Nasiriyah.
The other POWs were Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26 and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla. Their Apache helicopter was forced down in central Iraq, also on March 23.
Shortly after their capture early in the war, the seven had been shown on Iraq’s state-run television — giving a human face to the peril confronting American troops.
After their release, Young’s father, back in Lithia Springs, Ga., watched shaky video footage of his son on CNN.
“It’s him, and I’m just so happy that I could kiss the world!” Ronald Young Sr. said. “It’s him! It’s definitely him.”
“They look to be in pretty good condition … all giving the thumbs up,” said Col. Larry Brown, operations officer for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
When the seven arrived at the military base near Kut, some were wearing blue-and-white striped pajamas, another was in blue shorts. Marines at the base came forward to pat them on the back.
President Bush, who spent the weekend at Camp David, Md., was told Sunday morning of the freed captives.
Capt. David Romley said Marines marching north toward Tikrit were met by Iraqi soldiers north of Samarra who approached the 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Company and had the seven Americans with them.
Another spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Capt. Neil Murphy, said the Iraqi soldiers who had brought the Americans had been abandoned by their officers and “realizing that it was the right thing to do, they brought these guys back.”
“We go to every effort to recover any of the Marines or any of our soldiers taken captive,” Romley said.
In Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Iraqis told U.S. troops they would find the seven missing soldiers at a location about four or five miles south of Tikrit. “They said, ‘You should go get them,’ and they did,” Rumsfeld said.
When Marine combat headquarters got news that the missing had been found, the troops applauded — rare in combat operations, Murphy said.