FORT BLISS, Texas – A cheering, flag-waving crowd greeted seven rescued American prisoners of war Saturday night, giving the former captives a joyous homecoming after their military plane arrived in Texas.
As the C-17 transport plane rolled along the windswept tarmac at Fort Bliss, two of the former POWs, Spc. Joseph Hudson and Pfc. Patrick Miller, poked their heads through a hatch on top of the aircraft, holding an American flag and waving to the crowd. Thousands of well-wishers burst into a raucous cheer.
Hudson, of Alamogordo, N.M. bounded off the plane, hugged his wife Natalie and scooped up his 5-year-old daughter, Cameron, on the tarmac. The other returning soldiers also greeted loved ones, who gathered under the tail of the plane.
The cart then took a victory lap in front of the overjoyed crowd, which occasionally broke into chants of "USA! USA!" Hudson jumped off the cart at one point and said "This is a great country. God bless America!"
After a private reception and dinner of submarine sandwiches, cookies and pink lemonade, the five Fort Bliss soldiers were to spend the night at the post to undergo evaluation by doctors from nearby William Beaumont Army Medical Center.
"They are in great shape and great spirits," said Col. Glenn Mitchell, commander at the medical center.
The two other soldiers, Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., arrived at Fort Hood in central Texas, where they are based, about two hours later.
Their families at their side, the Apache helicopter pilots were escorted down a red carpet. About 1,500 friends, family and comrades of the two soldiers rose to their feet and let out a whooping cheer as a brass band blared military tunes. Cathy Franks, the wife of Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq was among the well-wishers.
At the ceremony, the two pilots struggled to hold back tears. Williams sat next to his wife Michelle, who is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot in the same 1st Cavalry Division as her husband.
"I'm speechless. It feels good to be home and let's keep praying for all those soldiers who are still fighting. God bless America. I love you," Williams said to a standing ovation. He hugged his wife as he stepped down from a podium.
Young still had a sense of humor despite his ordeal.
"This almost makes me as nervous as being shot at," he said. "We really appreciate the support. I thank God that I was able to live my life and share my life with my family."
He reminded the crowd that other Americans were still missing and tried to insist that his actions were nothing special.
"I say a special prayer each night for our fallen comrades, for the soldiers that didn't make it home, and the ones that are still over there. I want everyone to remember them in their prayers," Young said. "There's no doubt in my mind that in the 1st Cav division any of these soldiers would have done the exact same thing I did when I as there."
On Sunday, President Bush planned to helicopter to Fort Hood for Easter services with soldiers and their families. During the visit he also will meet privately with the two former POWs, White House officials said.
William's uncle, Russell Tucker, traveled from Brunswick, Ga. for the reunion.
"We cannot tell you how excited we are. It was just devastating what we went through and all of a sudden it's like the sun coming up after a stormy night," he said.
A nine-member team of debriefing specialists and a psychologist accompanied the seven on their trans-Atlantic flight from Germany, which was refueled in flight to avoid requiring an additional stop.
The seven POWs described a harrowing ordeal. They said they were kicked and beaten when captured and taunted by Iraqi interrogators. But they also said they were given medical treatment, regularly fed, and did not complain of torture.
At times, some of the POWs were certain they were going to die. At one point during their captivity, American bombs smashed the bricks of their prison, and one of the POWs reached through a crack and unlatched his cell door. But Iraqi guards prevented them from escaping.
The seven were rescued April 13 after three weeks of captivity when Iraqi captors abandoned their posts ahead of advancing American troops.
The Fort Bliss soldiers were captured and nine comrades were killed in an attack near Nasiriyah on March 23. Another member of the 507th, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was rescued separately in a daring commando raid April 1 and continues to recuperate in Washington, D.C.
Five of the former POWs are stationed with the U.S. Army's 507th Maintenance Company.
The Fort Bliss soldiers were Hudson, 23; Johnson, 30, El Paso; Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, Mission, Texas; Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, Park City, Kan., and Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J.
El Paso was awash in yellow ribbons, but the ribbons at the northeast El Paso home of Johnson's parents were purple, her favorite color.
Neighbor Tina Banston visited briefly because her 6-year-old daughter, Delaney, wanted to give a teddy bear to Johnson's 2-year-old daughter.
"I'm almost in tears because this is so exciting," Banston said. "We've all gone through so much just worrying about her."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.