But one morning before dawn, a few weeks after his mom left, the men with guns came to take the cousin. When he saw tears in Kevin’s eyes, he told him, in his dialect, “Don’t cry.”
Kevin understood. And watched him walk away.
“Then it was just me, in that hut,” Kevin said. “Everything just went really slow. Everything was just silent after that.”
He kept looking at the watch the terrorists had given him. He waited for food. He waited for the times when he would be allowed to bathe with a hose from the river, to scrub his clothes with a hard piece of soap and hang them up to dry; those were the only times he was allowed out of the room. He felt the guards’ eyes constantly on him.
He didn’t relax, ever; his whole mind was focused on staying alive. He tried not to give up hope.
The men had given him a backpack for when they marched, and he kept it ready, filled with survival gear that he had collected: a raincoat, two half-gallon jugs and another bottle of water, a piece of rope, a few candies and crackers.
One day, weeks after his cousin left, Kevin noticed that it was very quiet. Only one man was in the building, and he seemed to be busy.
“I had that backpack ready so if the opportunity ever came,” he said. His heart was racing, thinking about what would happen if he got caught. Then something seemed to snap.
“I looked at my bag and I just felt something. It was time,” he said. He had been a hostage almost five months. “I couldn’t stay there any longer.”
The guard had gone upstairs. Kevin picked up his backpack and crept through the door into the next room.
Carefully, silently, he put the backpack by a window on the side facing the clothesline. So scared he didn’t even think about it, he snatched a long knife in a bamboo sheath and slipped it into the bag. He heard the guard’s footsteps, grabbed his backpack and ran.
Goal: Get off the island
Kevin ran as fast and as silently as he could downhill away from the huts, straight to the river, where trees would help hide him. He was shaking with fear, and his legs were rubbery. Then he ran in the water, which was a few feet deep with a current that was moving against him. He was surprised how cold the water felt. He kept falling, slipping on the pink rubber flip-flops they had given him.
He was weak from being confined so long. “I tried to use whatever strength I had to keep going — get as far as I could from there and then get home.”
He dropped the smaller bottle of water in the river, but he knew he didn’t have time to retrieve it. He kept looking back to see if they were chasing him. He kept banging his toes on the rocks. He kept running.
His bag was heavy, but he knew he needed it. After hours of running, he ran up a steep hill to see where he was, then turned in the direction of the ocean. His goal: to get off the island.
Night fell with a full moon, but Kevin kept running. He found an empty hut and hid in it for a moment to rest. He didn’t relax; he was still too scared. There were boots inside the hut; he pulled those on over his blackened, torn feet.
A tiny, striped kitten appeared and tried to climb into his backpack, then jumped onto his lap, wanting to play. It felt like a good sign.
He stopped again around 2 a.m. to drink water and eat some of the candies. Ants had gotten onto the strawberry one and died on it, a sticky mess. “More protein,” he thought.
He went up and down hills and mountains, getting closer to the coast.
With the stolen knife, he cut open coconuts, slicing his fingers in his haste.
A few times he saw people farming, but he stayed away, scared that they might be supporters of the militants.
Toward nightfall the next day, he was crossing a plantation and a farmer called out to him. Kevin tried to get away, but he saw the man had a gun. The man ran across the pasture toward him and asked questions, trying different dialects and then English: “What are you doing here?”
Exhausted and terrified, Kevin told him the truth.
The farmer said, “I’m a good Muslim. I’ll help you.”
Kevin went back to his house with him still scared. The farmer said he had called police and the military, but Kevin didn’t know if he could believe him. Then he heard a helicopter — not off in the distance this time. It was close. It was loud.
“It was just an amazing feeling,” Kevin said. “ ‘I can trust this guy. I can trust him.’ ”
Within hours he was with U.S. soldiers on a Philippine military base. It was strange, and wonderful, to see Americans after so many months.
“It just reminded me of home,” he said.
Kevin kept gazing at the U.S. soldiers, making sure they were still there. “I was still thinking it might have been a dream.”
When he spoke to his mother, Kevin could hardly understand her, she was crying so hard.
“When you hold that emotion for so long,” she said later, “just to hear his voice: That’s him.”
Gerfa already knew that her cousin had escaped too. He was home safe with his wife.
In Lynchburg, Heiko was delivering 160 holiday turkeys to Centra Health employees on Dec. 10 when he got a crackly call from Gerfa. He couldn’t understand her at all. Either Kevin had been shot, or he had escaped. Heiko’s best friend and boss, Jerry Davidson, got someone to fill in for him and the two ran to Davidson’s office to try to reach Gerfa and the FBI. An agent told Heiko that Kevin was safe in U.S. military hands.
“Heiko and I jumped up and hugged like we have never hugged any man in our lives,” Davidson said. “We were bouncing around like two little kids on Christmas morning. It was elation like I’ve never had in my life.”
Kevin and his mom came home to a house blazing with Christmas lights. Heiko hadn’t even thought about Christmas until he heard Kevin was safe, but that afternoon he bought $100 in strings of bulbs, and he and Kevin’s cousin Sherry and Josh put up a tree and stacked gifts all around.
“It felt so good,” Heiko said. “It felt good, good, good.”
“This is home,” said Gerfa, knowing countless prayers had been said for them while they were held captive. “Good people, good community. This is where Kevin learned how we respect each other, how we value each other.” She wants to thank scores of people, from the U.S. ambassador to soldiers to friends who donated money to the special agents who worked on the case. “This country appreciates its people — and they will do anything to protect their people.”
When word reached Kevin’s friends — many of whom heard of his escape through cellphone calls just as Brookville High was winning the state football championship — they planned a welcome party at the airport. Teachers wanted to honor him for his bravery. Kevin and his family asked them not to. They just wanted to be home, together, for Christmas.
In the Virginia General Assembly, Del. Kathy J. Byron (R-Lynchburg) gave a presentation about Kevin’s courageous escape, and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) sat down with him privately to hear his story.
“Everyone was so touched by what a tremendous story — and a horrific story — for such a young man,” said Byron. Kevin appreciated the honor, but mostly he just wanted to get back to normal. For quite a while he wasn’t ready to see friends, just wanting to be with his family, his dogs and cats, feel safe, eat when he was hungry, sleep in a bed.
He spent a lot of time, at first, playing a video game shooting terrorists.
‘I just feel grateful’
More than a year later Gerfa still thinks about the Philippines constantly, checking to see if the military has caught the kidnappers or made any headway against Abu Sayyaf, which holds several other captives. Last weekthe group released an Australian, Warren Rodwell, who had been held for more than 15 months, after a ransom was paid.
Heiko, who lost 35 pounds while his wife and son were gone, doesn’t like to think about the ordeal at all.
Kevin, who missed a full semester of high school, went back right after the holidays. His teachers said he was disciplined and very low-key. “What can I do to catch up?” he asked, and got to work. He switched from advanced classes to basics and found he had forgotten a lot, as though he had to teach his brain how to think in equations and hypotheses again. By the end of the year, he had scored well enough to go on to tenth grade and get back to advanced classes.
Today he spends a lot of time with his friends, just hanging out. He laughs easily again, but he seems a lot older, several of his friends said, more mature than the other kids.
He doesn’t talk about what he survived, but he thinks about things differently now, more aware of what the U.S. stands for, more aware of his freedom. “I just feel grateful,” he said.
Sometimes, Kevin takes out the things he brought home from the Philippines – the battered, pink flip-flops he ran in; the knife in its sheath; the green T-shirt and black pajama pants he was wearing when he escaped. The clothes are still covered in mud.
Then he puts them away and helps his dad mow the lawn, or he finishes his homework or tosses a football around with friends. Goes back to being — almost — a normal American kid.