U.S. captives, families faced with uncertainty

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 25, 2003

One soldier described himself as simply a mechanic, someone who fixes things. Another's family thought she was relatively safe from the horrors of the front lines because she's an Army cook. A third was planning to leave the service to join the U.S. Border Patrol.

They are sons and brothers, a husband, a mother. Now a handful of Americans have gained a chilling new title - prisoners of war.

Around the country, their tearful families wait for word, terrified of what has happened since their capture, even more terrified of the unknowns to come.

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U.S. officials demand the captives be protected under the Geneva Conventions. But the conventions mean little to the mother who hugs her son's photograph, clutches her rosary beads and weeps.

''I don't want him to get cold, and I don't want him to get hungry. I just want him to come home alive,'' said Anecita Hudson of Alamogordo, N.M., after seeing her 23-year-old son, Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, interviewed on Iraqi television Sunday as a POW. The interview was carried on a Filipino station the family receives.

''He looked so scared,'' said his mother, shaking her head. ''It's like a bad dream, seeing your son captured on television.''

In the video, Hudson and his fellow POWs - three other men and a woman - are asked their names, hometowns, ages, and to explain what they are doing in Iraq. Along with footage of the prisoners, the Iraqi tape contained gruesome images of bodies identified as dead U.S. soldiers.

In Kansas, another family watched portions of the tape with the same mixture of tears and dread, as Pfc. Patrick Miller appeared on the screen.

Gone was the bravado of a soldier sure of his mission, heading off to war. Gone was assurance that this proud young father of two expressed, telling his mother and wife that he would come home safely. After all, reasoned Miller, a welder, he was in a support unit, not a combat unit.

Instead his family in Park City, Kan., saw a pale, nervous 23-year-old who answered questions in a shaky voice, whose eyes blinked nervously from behind round glasses.

Asked by the Iraqis why he came to their country, Miller, also with the 507th, stammered, ''I come to fix broke stuff.''

Asked if he came to shoot Iraqis, he answered, ''No, I come to shoot only if I am shot at.''

Watching the video, Miller's half brother, 27-year-old Thomas Hershberger, cringed.

''He's always such a tough guy,'' Hershberger said. ''It was hard to see him looking so scared.'' Miller joined the military last summer to help pay student loans, he said.

For now, Hershberger said, the family doesn't know what to think.

''We are just trying to be optimistic that because he was captured, he will not be killed,'' Hershberger said.

The family of another POW was clinging to the same hope.

Relatives of 30-year-old Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson spoke Monday about their fears for the single mother from Texas who loved nothing more than cooking for family and caring for her 2-year-old daughter. As the daughter of a retired serviceman, who grew up in the Fort Bliss area, she has the military in her blood, they said.

But, like other POW families, they assumed she was in a support group that was unlikely to come face-to-face with the enemy.

''I thought she was cooking,'' an aunt, Margaret Henderson of Miramar, Fla., told NBC's ''Today'' show.

Nothing had prepared them for the sight of a frightened looking Johnson, with a bandaged ankle, nervously answering questions from her captors.

''The first time I saw her picture was today, and the look on her face bothered me. She looked so worried,'' Henderson told The Associated Press. A retired chief nurse for the Air Force, Henderson was deployed in 1990 during the Gulf War.

In Mission, Texas, the mother of 21-year-old Edgar Hernandez, also shown on the Iraqi video, had a message for her battered-looking son.

''To have faith in God and he will bring you back,'' Maria De La Luz Hernandez said in Spanish. Hernandez's face looked swollen and cut.

Hernandez was serving as a supply truck driver.

''His job really is not that dangerous,'' said his brother, Joel, ''but once you're out there anything you do is dangerous I guess.''

Relatives said Hernandez is interested in going into law enforcement, perhaps with the border patrol, when he leaves the service.

The other POW on the Iraqi videotape was Sgt. James Riley from Pennsauken, N.J.

The family said Riley wanted to join to Army even when he was a boy growing up in New Zealand, where he lived until he was 10. He still holds dual citizenship.

His mother, Jane Riley, said she saw a picture of her son in a newspaper clipping Monday morning, but it didn't look like him.

''I didn't recognize my son because he didn't have his glasses on and he needs a shave,'' she said. A military officer later showed up at their house to confirm his capture.

It is the second tragedy in two months for the Army mechanic's family. Exactly two months earlier, their daughter Mary, 29, went into a coma with a rare neurological disease.

The Rileys said they are hopeful that James will return, but that he knew the risks involved with his career.

''It was his dream, it was his life choice,'' Jane Riley said.

U.S. military officials did not immediately release identities of the soldiers, who Iraqi television reported were caught in an ambush near Nasiriyah, a major crossing point over the Euphrates northwest of Basra. However, it was confirmed that some of the prisoners had been stationed at Fort Bliss, where a spokesman described the mood as ''tragic.''

And the news got worse: Iraq claimed that it shot down two Apache helicopters and was holding two crewmembers prisoner. Shown on Iraqi TV, two men wearing pilot overalls did not speak to the camera but appeared confused.

In Qatar, Gen. Tommy Franks talked boldly of his confidence in the POWs' training and in their motivation and courage.

Returning to the White House from Camp David, President Bush angrily demanded that the POWs be treated well, in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

''We expect them to be treated humanely, just like we'll treat any prisoners of theirs that we capture humanely. If not, the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals,'' he said.

But as bombs continued to fall, brave words and formal conventions did little to ease the heartache of the families.

''President Bush,'' Anecita Hudson begged in interview after interview. ''Please do something for my son.''