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Sunday, April 20

Freed soldiers celebrate Easter with reunions

By Louie Gilot | El Paso Times

Easter Sunday was a time of rest, family bonding and spiritual reflection for the Fort Bliss five.

The four young men and one woman had been reunited with wives, girlfriends, parents and children Saturday evening during their much-celebrated return to the United States. The soldiers' capture in an ambush in Iraq on March 24 and the three-week imprisonment that followed was, for a few hours, washed away in the clamor of El Paso fans.

Sunday, Spc. Edgar Adan Hernandez, 21, left the post to attend church but declined to speak about any aspect of his ordeal.

"I'm not allowed to say anything," he said.

Hernandez, of Alton, Texas, entered the Chaparral Apostolic Church through a side door for a midday Easter service. Hernandez and his family thanked the congregation of 125 in the modest, unadorned church in Chaparral, N.M. They had prayed and even fasted for him. Then, the reserved young man in desert camouflage bowed his head.

Officials at Fort Bliss, Texas, said the five soldiers have been asked by doctors to await the completion of psychological and physical checkups before answering any questions.

"This media blitz is very stressful," Fort Bliss spokeswoman Jean Offutt said.

Hernandez' father said he didn't want to rush war stories out of his son. He just wanted to enjoy his son's company.

"I gave him a big hug and I told him I loved him very much," Jose Hernandez said.

Col. Glenn Mitchell, commander of Beaumont Army Medical Center, said Saturday night the checkups will last two to four days. Doctors will decide what treatments are needed, then encourage the soldiers to take leave.

Spc. Shoshana Johnson, 30, of El Paso, sustained gunshot wounds to both ankles during the ambush and temporarily gets around via wheelchair. Sunday, she stayed at Pace Hall, a hotel-like facility on post that is accommodating the former POWs and their families until they can return home.

Johnson family spokeswoman Elsie Morgan said 15 family members, including Shoshana's grandmother, flew from New York Saturday night to spend the week with her.

"It's a family reunion on Easter day. They've done nothing but enjoy their time together," she said.

Sgt. James J. Riley, 31, of Pennsauken, N.J., went on a walk with his mother and smoked Marlboros, said his casualty assistance officer, Maj. Nathan Banks, in Fort Dix, N.J.

Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, Alamogordo, N.M., spent the day with his mother, wife and daughter. Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, from Park City, Kan., was with his mother, his wife and two children. Fort Bliss Chaplain Col. Fred Hudson said Miller's 4-year-old son told him Saturday evening, "Tonight, I get to see my daddy."

"It doesn't get any better than that," Hudson said Sunday.

Two other prisoners of war, Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., flew from Fort Bliss to Fort Hood, Texas, on Saturday night. Sunday morning, they joined President Bush at Easter church services at the central Texas Army post.

The five former prisoners from Fort Bliss were in a convoy of the 507th Maintenance Company, which was ambushed in southern Iraq. Nine other soldiers from the unit were killed and four wounded. A sixth prisoner, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, was held separately from the five and rescued April 1 by U.S. commandos.

The five El Paso former prisoners of war are expected to get a visit from U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn on Monday.

At Fort Bliss and around El Paso, people were still basking in the glory of Saturday night's return. Many Easter services included prayers for the soldiers.

"It is a complete gamut of emotion we've run here," said Col. Ben Hobson, Fort Bliss chief of staff, during a sunrise service at Fort Bliss' Stout Gym. "We feel intensely the absence of our loved ones who were deployed. We've anguished in the loss of nine soldiers and reveled in the joy of the return of five others. Easter's message of renewal is especially meaningful."