LANDSTUHL, Germany – Showing the bonds forged during captivity, freed American POWs playfully hoisted a comrade in her wheelchair Friday as they greeted a crowd from the balcony of a U.S. military hospital — their last stop on the way home.
U.S. Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson was shot in both ankles during an ambush, but she and six others who were held captive for three weeks in Iraq were eager to return home after spending several days in Germany resting, watching movies and mentally preparing to return to everyday life.
Smiling and waving from the balcony at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the seven made their first public appearance since Marines rescued them north of Baghdad last Sunday. Though Johnson and two others suffered gunshot wounds, hospital officials said all were making an excellent recovery and would fly home Saturday.
"We all would like to thank our Americans for the tremendous support we've been getting, and we're looking forward to coming home as soon as we possibly can," said Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, an Apache attack helicopter pilot who spoke for the group. He urged Americans to pray for U.S. troops still in Iraq.
At one point, Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26 — also an Apache crewman from the 1st Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment — reached down to help lift Johnson so she could see over the balcony railing.
It wasn't the first time that fellow soldiers have been eager to lend a hand to Johnson, the only woman in the group.
During the military flight from Kuwait to Landstuhl on Wednesday, a medical technician helped her to the galley where staff were baking cookies for the former POWs and others aboard.
"Shoshana, I got her up and had to hobble her the length of the aircraft on one foot to go up to the kitchen area," Russell Goodwater, 45, told reporters Friday.
"And throughout the aircraft ... I think every step we took there was another hand that came out to hold her up, and it was like the whole airplane was full of high-fives."
On Saturday, the group was to board a plane to Texas — the two Apache crewmen headed to Fort Hood; the five others, all from the 507th Maintenance Support Company, to Fort Bliss.
"All of the returnees are in good spirits and are eagerly anticipating their journey home," hospital commander Col. David Rubenstein said.
News of the impending arrival brought joy and excitement to relatives back home.
Natalie Hudson said she finally learned Friday what her husband, former prisoner of war Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, was looking forward to most. "He just wants dinner cooked for him," she said. "He's told me what he wants — green chile chicken enchiladas."
Doctors and psychologists have kept the seven former POWs sequestered in a kind of transition zone between captivity and public life.
Each has an individual room in a special, guarded ward equipped with TVs and videocassette recorders. They have their own table in the dining hall — where on Friday they enjoyed an American breakfast of their choice. Psychologists, physicians, nurses and chaplains also are assigned to help with the transition.
"It has to do with slowly reintegrating them to the public," Rubenstein said.
The two other soldiers who suffered gunshot wounds are Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, who was shot in the elbow, and Hudson, 23, who was shot twice in the ribs and once in the buttocks, according to U.S. Marines who flew them to safety. The injuries were minor, Rubenstein said.
Johnson, Hudson, Hernandez, Miller and Sgt. James Riley, 31, are comrades of former POW Jessica Lynch from the 507th Maintenance Support Company, which was attacked in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on March 23.
The camaraderie among the seven is what helped them get through their ordeal, experts say.
"As human beings they will react differently, but there is something to this notion of the fellowship of the foxhole where you have soldiers, Marines, even sailors and airmen going through combat and fighting for each other, protecting each other," Rubenstein said.