FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas – Back on U.S. soil, three American hostages rescued from Colombia rebels are now in the process of reintegrating into a society they've been absent from for more than five years.
They took the first steps Wednesday and Thursday as they underwent medical evaluations and began reuniting with family members.
"The one thing I can say about these individuals is that they're very resilient," said Col. Carl Dickens, a Joint Personnel Recovery Agency psychologist. "They're very stress-hardy and they're doing very well."
The three U.S. military contractors — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — had been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since their drug-surveillance plane went down in the jungle in February 2003.
They were among 15 hostages, including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 members of the Colombian security services, rescued by Colombian forces in a daring mission Wednesday.
After living in an environment Dickens described as "particularly challenging" for nearly 5 1/2 years, not to mention being away from family, a return to normal life will take time.
"Our job is to try to facilitate that transition back to their previous situation," Dickens said. "The way that we go about doing that is by helping them to gradually re-establish some predictability and control over their experience, help them identify some potential challenges that they may encounter as they make that transition and then finally give them some action plans that they can use."
The men, employees of a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary, have already completed the first phase of a reintegration process outlined Thursday by Maj. Gen. Keith Huber, commanding general of U.S. Army South, which is responsible for Army operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
That phase, called "initial recovery," began Wednesday when the three came under U.S. control. It involves immediate medical care and psychological evaluations.
The men are now in the second phase of reintegration, "transition location," at Brooke Army Medical Center at San Antonio's Fort Sam Houston. They continue to receive medical care and reunite with family members.
Huber said Stansell had already visited with his son, Kyle, and daughter, Lauren, as well as his father and stepmother.
"So on the tail end of their first private reunion in five years and five months, I can tell you that it made us all very proud that there were children there who were thrilled to see their parent and there were parents there who were overwhelmed with seeing their son back safe," Huber said.
He said Howes — whose birthday is Friday — and Gonsalves were to reunite with their families later Thursday.
Huber said the second phase of reintegration typically lasts two to four days before the final phase, called "home base," which involves final debriefings and resumption of normal activities.
"The conditions that they lived under were very cruel and very Spartan," he said. "And they are very grateful to the government and the armed forces of Colombia for this safe return, as are we."
Huber emphasized the men are participating in the reintegration process voluntarily because they are not members of the military.
Dickens noted that the process is designed to help not only the freed hostages, but also their family members.
After less than 24 hours on U.S. soil, the men's health was a primary concern Thursday.
Asked about possible disease, Col. Jackie Hayes, the hospital's chief of pulmonary and critical care, would not discuss any specific conditions the men might have.
"I'm happy to report that they are all in very good physical condition, very strong," he said.
Hayes said that as of now, the men aren't believed to have any infectious or communicable diseases.
U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield had said Wednesday that two of the three men were suffering from the jungle malady leishmaniasis, which is caused by parasites, and were "looking forward to modern medical treatment."
Kelly Coady, Stansell's ex-wife, told The Associated Press by phone from Sarasota, Fla., that Stansell spent an hour with 16-year-old Kyle and 19-year-old Lauren.
"Kyle said his father looked really good, looked thin, but looked really, really good," Coady said.