Tuesday, March 31, 2009

American Contractors Discuss Time in Captivity

Three American contractors who survived five and a half years in a Colombian jungle likened their captivity to being on the "planet of the apes," said one of the three contractors held by the terrorist organization known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

"We were off this planet for so long that we would marvel at something basic, as basic as a flat floor and a flat wall. It was a totally different planet that we had escaped or been rescued from," Tom Howes told online journalists and bloggers during a "DoD Live" bloggers roundtable March 26.

Another former captive, Marc Gonsalves, added that seeing an American for the first time upon their rescue brought an overwhelming emotion of pride.

"After coming off the helicopter in which we were rescued, we were then guided to a jet, and we were then loaded on that aircraft. At the entryway of the stairs leading to the door, there were a couple of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers there as guards," he said. "That was the first Americans that I had contact with. And, I remember the sight of that beautiful flag patch on his shoulder, and I just remember feeling an immense amount of pride to see and talk and to hear the voice of another American again."

Their captivity started in February 2003 on a routine mission. The three -- Gonsalves, Howes and Keith Stansell -- were based out of Bogota, Colombia.

"We were flying en route to a forward operation location where we would be able to pick up more fuel," Gonsalves said. "And as we were crossing a mountain range, we experienced an engine failure and were forced to crash land."

Five people were aboard the plane when it crashed into the thick jungle of Colombia: four Americans and one host-nation rider.

"The impact was violent. The fuselage of the airplane was ripped open," Gonsalves said. After landing in a small clearing on a mountain slope, the group was greeted with the sound of gunfire.

"We were immediately ... attacked, basically by a group of rebels, a group that calls themselves the FARC," Gonsalves said. "And, in their luck, and against our luck, we crashed right in a middle of a group of these people. It was only minutes before they were there. They had us, and they began to take us away at gunpoint."

As the three Americans were taken away from their crash site, Howes was still unconscious from the crash. His left shoulder had slipped out of the safety belt, and on impact he swung around and hit his head on the support between the windshield and the side window. They would later learn that a member of the terrorist organization had killed the rest of the crew.

"And when my memory came back, I was a prisoner of the FARC. I'd already been strip-searched, and there were people -- FARC -- with AK-47 rifles on either side of me," Howes said. "And that began the period of captivity."

The three American contractors were forced on a 24-day march deep into Colombia, to what Howes called a fixed camp.

"We had time to rest up and realize the severity of our situation," he said. "In my mind, I started to eat myself alive, realizing that this was going to be a ... possibly very long, difficult period in the most difficult of conditions."

Howes and Gonsalves both said while the situation shocking at first, their minds toughened up to adapt. The three Americans, Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 11 Colombian national police and military members also held hostage by the FARC were flown to safety after being rescued July 2 in a Colombian military operation. Howes said the rescue seemed to be over almost as soon as it started. "Five and half years ended in less than a second," he said.

The former captives both said they didn't the extent of efforts on their behalf in the United States and Colombia until after their rescue. "And my heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone in the U.S. military and all those in the Colombian military, for everything they've done for us," Howes said.

Since their return to the United States, the former captives have reconnected with their families and started working again. On March 12, they received the Department of Defense Medal of Freedom, the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart.

(Author Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the Defense Media Activity's Emerging Media directorate.)
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