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  •   Army Details Capture of 3 Soldiers

    P.O.W.'s with Grange
    U.S. soldiers Christopher Stone, Andrew Ramirez and Steven Gonzales (L-2ndR) receive medals of honor from Major General David Grange (R), commanding General of the First Infantry Division, the soldiers' home unit. (Reuters)
    By Dana Priest
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, May 8, 1999; Page A1

    The three American soldiers captured by Yugoslavia were on patrol inside Macedonia when they were ambushed by about 20 Yugoslav soldiers who surrounded their military vehicle and fired on them before their gunner could ready his .50-caliber machine gun, the soldiers' commander said yesterday.

    Giving the first detailed account of how the soldiers were captured March 31, Maj. Gen. David Grange said the gunner, sticking out the top of the armored vehicle, pulled back through the hatch as 50 rounds of gunfire struck the dark green Humvee and antitank rockets exploded nearby. The vehicle hit a ditch and then the engine, smoking from fire, stopped.

    Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone, the senior noncommissioned officer on board, radioed in his coordinates. "We're taking direct fire. . . . We're trapped, they're all around us. We can't get out."

    Moments later, the radio went dead. "Thinking their gunner had been hit by fire, and realizing they were surrounded by a superior force, Stone decided to surrender," Grange, commander of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, told reporters.

    As they stepped out of the Humvee, said Grange, the U.S. soldiers were knocked to the ground, kicked in the face and body and beaten so hard with rifles that one of the rifle butts broke off.

    The Yugoslav troops, with two-headed Eagle patches on their shoulders, pointed their rifles at the Americans' heads. They put hoods over the men's heads and handcuffs on their wrists. Speaking in English – which Grange interpreted as a sign that they were probably a Special Operations team – a few of the soldiers threatened to cut off one of their captives' ears.

    Grange described for the first time what the soldiers have said happened to them about 2:30 p.m. that day along a bumpy, isolated road near the town of Alganja, 1.5 miles south of the Yugoslav border. It was a routine ride along a route Stone had traveled before that turned into a 31-day imprisonment for three members of the 3rd Platoon, Quarterhorse Cavalry of the 1st Infantry Division.

    Grange's account, which was based on interviews with the three soldiers, contradicted Yugoslav assertions that the men were in Yugoslavia when they were captured. The three had originally been assigned to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Macedonia. When that operation ended, they began scouting missions along the border for NATO.

    Stone, 25, of Smiths Creek, Mich., Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez, 24, of Los Angeles, and Spec. Steven M. Gonzales, 21, of Huntsville, Tex., were released after Jesse Jackson traveled with an interfaith religious delegation to Belgrade to ask President Slobodan Milosevic to free them.

    The White House warned Jackson and his delegation not to make the trip, which occurred as NATO warplanes were bombing Yugoslavia. Asked yesterday what he thought of Jackson's efforts, Grange did not hesitate. "I think his effort was great," he said. "He was determined. He showed the willpower to get the soldiers back. He made it happen. And we're very grateful for his efforts."

    Jackson has said the delegation made the trip in hopes of breaking "the cycle of violence" created by NATO bombings and Yugoslav attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

    Since they became prisoners of war, the three soldiers have become instant celebrities, just like the young Air Force captain, Scott O'Grady, who was shot down by Serbian antiaircraft weapons over Bosnia in 1995.

    The three men met with President Clinton on Wednesday. The next day, they were honored at a ceremony at their 1st Infantry Division headquarters in Wuerzburg, Germany. Each received six medals; the Purple Heart for injuries received in captivity, the Army Commendation Medal, the Prisoner of War Medal, the Armed Forces Medal, the United Nations Medal and the NATO Medal.

    The three headed back to their homes in the United States yesterday, accompanied by their families. "All I can say right now is it's just great to finally step back into Texas," Gonzales told reporters after arriving at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

    "I don't think it ever looked this beautiful," Ramirez said last night after arriving in Los Angeles. "But I do love it and I'm glad to be here." He described his release as "pure joy" and said he intends to remain in the Army and rejoin his unit if possible – but not until after some rest and plenty of hamburgers.

    Doctors who examined Ramirez said he had a stitched-up wound on the top of his head and two fractured ribs, as well as swelling of his lower right leg. His injuries have begun to heal and no surgery is planned. Gonzales sustained a chipped tooth and abrasions on his wrists. Stone had a broken nose, bruises, a chipped tooth and abrasions on his face.

    After their release, Stone said they were treated badly only in the beginning of their captivity, and the three said they had mixed emotions about their captors. "They were very kind to us," Stone said the day of his release.

    Yesterday Grange painted a much harsher picture of their treatment in captivity. During the first week, he said, they were interrogated, almost always hooded and sometimes beaten with batons. They slept on the floor or in a chair, feet shackled.

    They were kept in solitary confinement almost continuously, denied the use of toilet facilities and moved from prison to prison, including one in Nis and one in Belgrade. Even after the first week, they were periodically beaten, said Grange.

    Grange's account seemed to dispel hushed criticism that had circulated in the Pentagon that the men had acted imprudently when they separated from the other two vehicles in their group in a Serb-populated area during a time of hostility and headed to a convenience store for some sodas. Grange said that was not true.

    "This patrol was conducted according to Army cavalry doctrine," he said.

    Special correspondent Cassandra Stern in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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