POW Rescue Mission
With Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 15, 2003; Noon ET
The American POWs came close to not being rescued. The Marines searching for them last Sunday in Samarra, thirty miles to the south of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, couldn't find the house they thought they were in, according to two Marines interviewed Tuesday.
Peter Baker, Washington Post foreign correspondent, picks up the story from there and was online Wednesday, April 16 at Noon ET, live from Iraq, to tell the rest of it. He will also discuss the latest developments in the war.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
washingtonpost.com: Peter, thanks for being with us again. Quite a story about the POW rescue. You say in your article today that their later jailers were more compassionate than the ones in the beginning, providing them with food and money. How bad were the first ones?
Peter Baker: The first ones seemed cruel and menacing. They believed those guards were capable of doing them great harm, although in the end they did not. At one point, those early guards moved an artillery gun into their prison at night in what seemed to the POWs to be an attempt to draw U.S. airs trikes.
Castle Shannon, Pa.: Peter, I was confused reading your story this morning. Were the POWs actually being held in House Number 13 or was that erroneous information?
Peter Baker: The Marines who rescued them don't really know. All they know is the house they found included Americans. They did not stop at that point to linger and figure out what the problem had been. Presumably it was House 13 but they were unable to read the sign or somehow missed it.
Washington, D.C.: Have the captors been identified and if so, are they being held?
Peter Baker: The people who captured the U.S. POWs have not been identified and are not being held. The three guards who were there at the end were left behind because the Americans considered them to be friendly and therefore they were not taken into custody. Following the wishes of the POWs, the Marines offered to take those last three guards with them to protect them against Saddam Hussein's remaining loyalists who wouldn't appreciate their role in helping to free the Americans. But the Iraqi guards declined, saying they wanted to stay in their home.
Upper Marlboro, Md.: How were the POWs treated while they were in custody? I read that the young lady was shot in both feet. Was this done in battle or did they torture her?
Peter Baker: All the gunshot wounds suffered by the three POWs who were injured were inflicted during the battle that led to their capture. While they were kicked and roughed up at the moment of their capture, the POWs said that after they were brought to a prison, the physical abuse began to subside. The main abuse was mental and psychological, as they were never sure whether they might be killed and whether they might ever see their families again.
Cumberland, Md.: Why is the media making such a big fuss over these POWS? They certainly aren't in the heroic mold of John McCain or indeed many of the POWS captured in WW II.
Peter Baker: Nobody is comparing them to any other POWs from other wars, at least not in the Post so far as I know. Obviously this whole war doesn't compare to Vietnam or WWII in terms of intensity or scope for casualties. We have only the context of our current time to place events in and I think that no one would choose to spend 21 days in the captivity of Iraqis if could avoid it. So theirs is the story we have to tell.
Shelby Township, Mich.: Which company of Marines rescued the POW's?
Peter Baker: It was Delta Company of the Marine's 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.
Mclean, Va.: Were the women POWs abused in any way?
Peter Baker: The only woman POW was Shoshana Johnson and she said that after they discovered she was a woman, they treated her relatively well, better than her male comrades.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Do we have early indications on how the prisoners were treated? Were there violations of the Geneva Convention, and, if so, are there suspects who have been found and are being held responsible?
Peter Baker: The U.S. maintains that the airing of a videotape of their interrogation was a violation of the Geneva Convention. If as the POWs say the Iraqis deliberately moved an artillery gun into their prison to attract enemy bombs, that too would be construed as a violation. I'm sure that Army debriefers are going through the full accounts of their captivity and may identify other violations as well. But at the moment, we know of no identifiable suspects to pursue.
Vienna, Va.: Can you tell us a little about the decompression phase when the POWs will be back into medical/mental care?
Peter Baker: Experts say that men and women who have gone through the sort of ordeal these seven have need time to digest and process their experiences. That's one reason why they're not flown home immediately or allowed to see relatives right away. Experience with past POWs who did that showed that was too traumatizing for them.
Culver City, Calif.: The Cumberland, Md. comment indicates that he didn't think these POWs were "heroic" enough.
I'd like to say that I think otherwise.
That said, did they have POW training, and what would such training have them do?
Peter Baker: On the question of heroism, Sgt. James Riley, one of the freed prisoners, rejected the idea that they were heroes and said they were only doing their jobs. That, of course, is for others to judge. But soldiers do receive some guidance as to how to respond and survive imprisonment by the enemy; however, those who have gone through it say nothing can actually prepare you for the real experience. Different people also react in different ways -- for some, thinking about loved ones may help them get through. But for others, that may only worsen the experience. But soldiers do talk with real former POWs to hear about their experiences, for whatever that's worth.
Phoenix, Ariz.: I realize the POWs were prisoners and not there as guests, but I'm curious if the guards had conversations with the POWs and what they talked about.
Peter Baker: Not that they mentioned to me during the plane ride from Iraq to Kuwait. It's possible some of them got to know their captors a little bit. I suspect that may have been more so with their guards at their last place of captivity given the affection the POWs expressed for them when they were rescued.
Arlington, Va.: Peter, Nick Dowling here in Washington glad to see you are in one piece. My question is what do your U.S. military sources tell you their expectations are regarding the duration and long term scope of the U.S. presence in Iraq. Is this like Germany and Japan where we will have perm U.S. military installations?
Peter Baker: Hey Nick, great to hear from you. Hope you and the family are well. The military doesn't like to venture specific guesses as to the duration of their presence in Iraq simply because whatever they would guess they would inevitably be wrong. The commanders often like to say they plan by time but execute by event, which means their ultimate withdrawal would depend on the success of the reconstruction effort. Most commanders would scream in agony if they were told they would have the sort of long-term presence in Iraq that they do in Germany and Japan. Most generally hope to be out within a year or two.
Lanham, Md: How did the Marines end up finding the house that they were in, and how did they know that they were Americans?
Peter Baker: They found the house because one of the POWs, Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, called out to them from the house telling them he was American. They determined that they were who they said they were in part based on their English and accent and obvious American mannerisms.
Shelby N.C.: Did the POW's during their incarceration believe that one day they would be rescued?
Peter Baker: They were afraid they would be killed before being rescued. The history of POWs being rescued is rather unencouraging and they suspected at various times that their continued existence could pose such a problem for their Iraqi captors that the easiest course would simply be to do away with them. Some of them were particularly convinced they would die at the end when they stopped hearing the sounds of fighting and realized they had been taken out of Baghdad. They thought that was a bad sign because it meant that they might be more trouble than they were worth to the Iraqis.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.