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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Former POWs Arrive at Ramstein

Aired April 16, 2003 - 16:50   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: And as we've been talking to Secretary Collins, we've been watching these live pictures coming in from Frankfurt, Germany, Ramstein Air Base, where this military transport plane has just landed, bearing the seven former American prisoners of war. They'll be opening the door there in the back of the plane, we're told, in just a matter of a few minutes.
And we'll see the seven, five from the 507th Maintenance Company who were captured very early in the war in Iraq, and two Apache helicopter pilots, two chief warrant officers in the Army, who were also captured. And it wouldn't hurt now to mention their names. They're Chief Warrant Officers Ronald Young, age 26, and Apache helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer David Williams, age 30.

And before I throw it back to our Matthew Chance, I'm going to name the others on board, the other POWs: James Riley, specialist -- or Sergeant James Riley, age 31; specialist Shoshana Johnson, age 30 -- she's there on the upper left -- specialist Joseph Hudson, age 23; specialist Edgar Hernandez, age 21; and Private 1st Class Patrick Miller, age 23, all of them, again, members of the Army's 507th Maintenance Company.

So, we are watching a vehicle pull up to the back of the plane.

Matthew Chance, I guess a little bit of excitement building there, although you said it's not a very high-profile welcoming ceremony, still some excitement.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, quite a lot of excitement, certainly among the U.S. troops who have come out here.

There isn't any official kind of welcoming party, at least no guard of honor or anything like that. Just as I mentioned, the commander of the base here, the brigadier general who commands the U.S. Ramstein Air Force Base here in Germany, he will be shaking the hands of each of the prisoners of war as they get off the back of the C-141 military transport aircraft.

We've been told the prisoners of war will be the first seven people to get off, unless, of course, there are any medical emergencies that need to be taken off before them. Remember, there are 48 people on board this plane behind me; 19 of them have combat- related injuries. And amongst those combat-related injuries, there may be some very serious injuries that would get priority, obviously, to the prisoners of war, who, are, as far as we know, in relatively good health -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: That's right. And, of course, we would expect, as Matthew says, if there are any injuries that need quick or immediate medical attention, of course, they would come off first.

We do know, Matthew, that specialist Shoshana Johnson was shot in both her feet when the unit was ambushed. And she apparently got some treatment while being held captive, because we remember seeing both of her feet bandaged. There were these white bandages around her feet when she and others were taken onto that helicopter that lifted them up and away, and away from that location near Nasiriya, where they were found by U.S. Marines. So, it is a -- you have to say, this is a very lucky bunch.

Here are the pictures again from Iraq. There you see her feet. She was shot, but, apparently, not such a serious injury that she couldn't walk, couldn't get around. And we've since seen pictures of her on that helicopter, where the soldiers were being transported from Iraq to Kuwait, where they were laughing and talking with one another.

So, she clearly -- again, all of them very, very lucky to have survived that ordeal, because, in the days before they were found, many of us, I think, were most concerned, to put it mildly, about what might have happened to them.

For days, they had just disappeared off the radar screen. There was no word in the intelligence community, until some Marines passing through this small town were virtually tapped on the shoulder by an Iraqi policeman, who said: I think I have some information for you.

And it was only after that that the Marines went and found these seven prisoners of war. Of course, they had been captured in two separate incidents, but they were being kept together.

And, Matthew, what we know, also, is that the Iraqis who were holding them at the end of their ordeal they said were being much kinder to them than the original Iraqi troops had been. They said, at the end, they even had -- their captors were using their own money to buy food for them.

I don't know if Matthew Chance is still with us. We're watching that...

CHANCE: Well, that's right, Judy. And I am still with you, Judy, yes.

Well, that's right. The tail of that aircraft is coming down right behind me. You mentioned those wounds sustained by Shoshana Johnson. I think we have to remember as well, she's received medical treatment first of all, surprisingly, perhaps, by the Iraqis. She did receive those wounds to her ankles. Apparently, she was shot with one bullet that passed through both ankles. She received some primary medical attention, of course, from her captors.

And as we've been reporting for the past few days, the military authorities, the U.S. military authorities, have had a chance to examine all these prisoners of war and to provide medical attention while they've been in Kuwait. The operations here in Landstuhl -- in Ramstein, rather, in Landstuhl, where they'll be moved to in a few minutes from now, the doctors there say that they intend to, first of all, examine all those prisoners of war very thoroughly.

And they mentioned Specialist Johnson by name, actually, earlier today, saying that they are particularly concerned about her. She may require further surgery, they say. But all that will be pending on further medical examination -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: We're watching a group of soldiers line up there outside the plane. It looks like the activity is heating up a little bit. Perhaps they are getting close to the moment when they will have the prisoners of war step down.

As you've been hearing Matthew say, these seven former prisoners of war, the plan has been for them to be the first to get off the plane, unless there are other soldiers on board, Marines, who need more immediate medical attention and need to be brought off. At this point, we don't have any indication one way or another.

We were just talking on the telephone with the mother of Chief Warrant Officer Ron Young, saying she, of course, is very excited about this. She has talked to her son on Sunday. She said he sounds -- I took notes -- she said, he sounds good. She said, he was joking. He said he was fine, although she said that he told her he had lost 20 pounds, which for a young man who looked to be slim, I guess you'd say, in the pictures that we saw before he was captured, that's a lot of weight.

Now, here we see -- again, this is the transport plane, the C- 141, that's landed at Ramstein Air Force base in Frankfurt. We see an emergency vehicle pulling up there at the back. The troops, as you have heard Matthew say, are going to be taken to the Landstuhl hospital there, which is part of the military base at Ramstein. And they will get further medical checkups. They've already been looked over very thoroughly by doctors and other medical personnel in Kuwait. But here at Ramstein, at Landstuhl, they'll receive further medical attention.

And we are watching at the same time you are. We don't know whether -- maybe this is they coming off the plane. We can't really see the faces right now. This may well be they. We are craning our necks and looking at the same time you are. Hard to say.

Is anybody able to see this better than I am? This could be the seven, or some of them.

CHANCE: Yes, Judy.

WOODRUFF: It is.

CHANCE: It looks like they -- these are certainly people -- these are certainly people making victory signs, raising their arms, being cheered by a number of the soldiers and the journalists here on the airstrip, as they come off the back of that plane. Also, as I mentioned, Brigadier General Erwin Lessel, the commander of the U.S. Air Force base here at Ramstein, is out there to shake the hands of each and every one of the prisoners of war as they get off the back of that plane. But you're right. It's not clear from this vantage point that we have whether that was all of the prisoners of war. I don't think it was, to be honest. And it looks like they are waiting for other people to get off.

But, as we've mentioned as well, there are a number of other injured, 41 injured people, on board that plane, along with the prisoners of war, 19 combat injuries amongst them.

WOODRUFF: Well, they were showing this V-for-victory signal with their hands. And that leads us to believe that maybe that was the seven, or at least some of the seven. I'm not sure that I counted all seven, but that remains to be seen.

So Matthew Chance is with us at -- he is at Ramstein Air Base where the prisoners of war have just arrived on board that transport plane. And with us also now from Atlanta -- my colleague, Miles O'Brien.

And Miles, we're turning it over to you for this hour. I'm signing off for my hour and turning it over to you for the hour to come.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, thank you very much, Judy.

We're going to stay in this picture from the Romstein Air Base in Germany for a little while and tell you what we know about the transfer of those POWs.

This significant stop on their bay back home. We suspect there are an awful lot of family members all across the United States, right now, who were craning their necks and looking ever so closely to see just who came off the C-141 just a few moments ago.

I don't believe I saw Shoshana Johnson, who we've been telling you about was injured -- a single gunshot wound injuring both of her feet.

Let's take a look at replay here. And I do believe that is the group there minus Shoshana, who, as we have told you, was injured but still able to walk around fairly well.

She is, obviously, the most in need of medical attention at that Landstuhl Hospital we've been telling you about, but all of them are going to need a little bit of time to decompress and sort of assess the harrowing situation they have been through.

Matthew Chance, tell us a little bit about that. Do you know much about -- oh, you know what? I think we have a live picture now.

There's Shoshana getting the royal treatment -- the stretcher ride. This time, when we saw her at that transit point where Bob franken brought you those wonderful pictures, Shoshana was able to hobble fairly well from the Chinook helicopter onto the C-130 on her way to Kuwait, ultimately.

This time she got a ride. I saw her smile -- quite a broad smile. There's got to be a lot of happiness on that bus right now, Matthew Chance.

CHANCE: There must certainly be a great deal of relief, of course, amongst the prisoners of war who were rescued by the U.S. troops in the region but also by their families that we've been hearing earlier from. Warrant Officer Young's mother -- who we had on our air a few moments ago.

Also amongst the U.S. military commanders, who have admitted they were feeling a great deal of pressure to find the missing in action in the Iraq theater. I think it's pretty clear now that those prisoners of war have come out -- that person on the stretcher did seem to be Shoshana Johnson. It's not entirely clear from our vantage point here.

But, you know, they're all coming -- all seven of them. This is an end of a very long and arduous journey. You asked me earlier about how they've been treated.

Well, there will be some further debriefings at the Landstuhl Medical Center to get as much information as possible from these prisoners of war about exactly how they were treated. It's not altogether clear, but we've had initial reports they were moved from the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, to various other locations, perhaps as many as seven or eight further locations.

What we know for sure is that they were paraded, first of all, in front of Iraqi television. We all remember those images, particularly of Private Johnson looking absolutely terrified as she was being asked questions by Iraqi journalists, Arabic-speaking journalists, at the very least.

We don't know what exactly their treatment was, though it's been reported -- according to interviews these prisoners of war have done in the last few days as they were taken out of Iraq -- that they were treated by their last guards, who were said to be policemen, not members of the Iraqi armed forces, quite well.

And as we reported earlier, those guards even spent their own money buying medicine and food to feed their prisoners until the Marines turned up in Samara, a town just very close by Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein. The Marines turned up there.

And working on Intelligence, it's not clear exactly where that Intelligence came from, whether it was from civilians in the area or whether it was from Iraqi military. Working on that Intelligence, they went into the area where they believe these prisoners of war were being held and -- had a look around -- couldn't find them initially until one of those American POWs called out from a window, calling the attention of the young Marines who entered the building and, basically, told everybody to get on the floor and then asked all those people inside the room who were American to stand up. So this has been just the latest leg, as I say, of a very long and arduous journey after they've had the next round of medical checkups at the Landstuhl medical facility. After those debriefings have continued here at Landstuhl, they hope -- all of them -- to get the final OK so they can go back to their loved ones, their families, and their friends back in the U.S. -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: And speaking of that, we have one Kaye Young on the line with us. Kay is the mother of Ron Young, Chief Warrant Officer -- happened to be one of the pilots on an Apache Longbow helicopter that had the misfortune of hard landing in the midst of some Iraqi Republican Guard armor. He also is the one that happened to be carrying that guitar you might have noticed.

Kaye, is he much a musician?

KAYE YOUNG, MOTHER OF CWO RON YOUNG: Well, he's kind of self- taught. And his friend Ralph, who's also an Apache pilot, has been teaching him some things. And they were playing together. I thought they sounded pretty good when we were in Texas.

O'BRIEN: So what do you think they're playing now -- "Oh, How I Want To Go Home", "Home on the Range," -- maybe -- or "This is the Worst Trip I've Ever Been On? -- maybe? Who knows?

YOUNG: I just bet they're too excited to play.

O'BRIEN: I should say so. How about you? Tell me your excitement level right now.

YOUNG: Oh, it's up to 10. It was so exciting. I saw the others get off, and I thought, "Where is Ron?" I thought, "Don't I recognize him?" You know, there was one tall guy that had kind of a shaved head, and I thought, "Well," and then, all of a sudden, I see him just (UNINTELLIGIBLE) out with his guitar so I said, "There he is."

O'BRIEN: I think a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) does fit the bill there. They seemed really hail and hearty and no worse for the wear.

YOUNG: That's right. They looked good, didn't they?

O'BRIEN: Even Shoshana, who we know was injured -- big, broad smile as she was carried on that stretcher. It's really heartening to see that. You know, it must be in a way, on the one hand, very heartening and yet, on the other hand, kind of frustrating to see him on TV and not be able to reach out and hug him.

YOUNG: Well, you know, it's really not. I am just so thrilled to just see him, period. All of them. It's been such a miracle.

O'BRIEN: I know this is probably the worst time to try to bring this all back but -- can you remember the darkest moments of this and compare that to where you are right now?

YOUNG: You know, I can. I can remember thinking about him on a cold, damp floor, not being able to lay in my bed. You know, the first night -- and worrying about things that they might be doing to him. You know, I try to keep these things out of my mind, but, you know, they would creep in and I would pray very hard to get rid of them and, you know, there was just absolute despair. It's almost like a death.

O'BRIEN: I'm curious.

YOUNG: The difference is you always knew you had hope, and I always felt like they were going to be all right.

O'BRIEN: Let me ask you this. It's sort of a hypothetical question. The five members of the 507th Maintenance Unit -- as Matthew Chance is reporting just a little while ago -- were videotaped by Iraqi television, and that tape was very frightening and difficult to watch, I thought, but, on the other hand, I suppose it would provide family some measure of assurance that they were alive.

Do you think it would have been better or worse if you'd had a videotape of Ron?

YOUNG: Well, you know, they showed them. Is that what you're talking about?

O'BRIEN: Yes, yes.

YOUNG: No, I think it was better because the first group -- the five -- to me looked like they'd been roughed up a lot. So I refused to see the picture, to start with, of Ron.

And, then, everybody kept saying, "Mama, he looks fine. He looks good. So I looked at it from afar and, I went closer and closer till I could, you know, look at it -- and -- it did me good to see it because he looked strong. He didn't look pitiful or wounded or -- you know -- he just looked strong and like he was determined and it really lifted me up.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

I'll tell you what. Kaye, if you could just stay here for just a minute with us.

YOUNG: OK.

O'BRIEN: I want to bring Christiane Amanpour in from Baghdad.

YOUNG: OK.

O'BRIEN: Christiane, there's a great piece in "The Washington Post" today, which I'm sure you're aware of and have learned from your sources there about the way they were held in this town south of Tikrit by rather sympathetic jailers, if you will. There was a fair amount of help that was offered by Iraqis to these POWs.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it certainly does seem that way -- certainly from the information we've been able to glean mostly from U.S. sources but certainly on the ground.

It seems the broadbrush outlines of this for when the Marines went up towards Tikrit in advance of the final -- what they thought was going to be the battle for Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace. They were, apparently, going up to make sure that the main road for all the U.S. heavy armor was clear, that in a town up there they were approached by an Iraqi policeman who said -- did they, had they come for the prisoners, and then led them to this building where the prisoners of war were being held.

And of course, one remembers the moment that they were captured, and when it became news we were all covering the war from the south end as the U.S. was forging its way up to the Baghdad area. And, of course, this is when on March 23 that these people had been part of a maintenance company and pretty much bringing up the rear with the logistics and other things, and that was the time when it was clear then that the Iraqi fighters and the irregulars were not going to confront the U.S. head-on, but perhaps were going to go back to the stretched and vulnerable supply line which is what they did.

And of course, these five took a wrong turn, landed in an ambush in Nasiriya -- near Nasiriya and that's what happened. Of course, Private Jessica Lynch was amongst them and some of their comrades were also killed. So, they were, of course, very lucky to be taken prisoner and to be returning home today. The other incident, of course, when you've been talking was a day later when the pilots were forced to make landing in areas that had been controlled by Iraqi fighters at the time. So quite a dramatic story, of course, but it was war. They were prisoners and now they've been freed.

O'BRIEN: We've been watching, Christiane, as you've been talking, other people coming off the plane.

We should tell viewers, there are 52 casualty, coming off this C- 141 also on their way to Landstuhl, which is the largest military hospital outside the borders of the United States. And we will continue with that picture as we bring in a friend of Shoshana Johnson, Teresa Rowland, who's joining us from Fort Bliss and who works at the base there in the PX, I believe -- Teresa.

THERESA ROWLAND, FRIEND OF SHOSHANA JOHNSON: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Did you get a chance to see the wonderful picture of Shoshana smiling so broadly on her stretcher?

ROWLAND: Yes.

O'BRIEN: What entered your mind when you saw that?

ROWLAND: I grabbed the PAO guy that was next to me, and I said, there she is! There she is!

O'BRIEN: Excellent. Excellent. Have you had any contact with her?

Have you had much contact with her since she was freed? ROWLAND: Yes. She called me last night from Kuwait?

O'BRIEN: Do you want to share a little of that conversation?

ROWLAND: Oh, god. She told me she could hardly wait to see me. And she, you know she thought about me a lot as well as her family. And I started crying, you know, we both started crying. And she wants me to come and see her as soon as I can. So...

O'BRIEN: Take us back to the darker moments for a minute -- we'll let that jet pass overhead for a minute. I hope you can hear me OK, Teresa. When that tape was released and I'm not sure how much of it -- excuse me, you saw, but that must have been a scary thing.

ROWLAND: When they were captured?

O'BRIEN: Excuse me. Yes. Theresa, when they were captured and that tape was released.

ROWLAND: I saw the tape. I saw the tape of Shauna. A lot of people had the perception, she's petrified, she this, she's that, but the look on my girl's face was I'm getting out of here. You know, I'm going to answer these questions, but I'm not a happy camper. I knew she was coming home. I never gave up that faith. I never gave up the hope. I just knew she was coming.

O'BRIEN: Theresa, let me ask you one question about that tape. I remember Shoshana's eyes very vividly. There you see it there, the tape replayed just a few moments ago as she was taken off I believe.

Do you remember her eyes...

ROWLAND: Yes.

O'BRIEN: ...going back and forth?

What did you think -- did you ask her what was going through her mind.

ROWLAND: I knew what was going through her mind. She was just -- hey, you guys have to come get me and get me home. She wasn't happy where she's at.

O'BRIEN: Wow! All right.

Well we wish you a happy homecoming with your friend, Shoshana Johnson.

Theresa Rowland from Fort Bliss.

Also at Fort Bliss for us today Jamie Colby who is watching things from there. A happy military installation, to say the least -- Jamie.

JAMIE COLBY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Actually, Miles, we're at Fort Hood where David Williams and Ron Young were stationed before they left for the war. And we're in front of Michelle Williams' house. Earlier today we had a chance to sit down with her. She probably more than anyone, Miles, understands the process that will go on in Germany now. She's a military pilot. She flies Black Hawk helicopters but not today. Today she's a wife and a mother. And she is preparing for a happy homecoming.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLBY (voice-over): Michelle Williams is learning how instrumental her Apache pilot husband, Chief Warrant Officer David Williams was in Sunday's rescue of all seven POWs.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS, WIFE OF FORMER POW: It's amazing what he's been through and what they were able to do.

COLBY: Wednesday's "Washington Post" reports the marine his an address, house number 13, but couldn't find it. And as a crowd of Iraqis gathered they sensed an ambush.

WILLIAMS: It was that close.

I'm just so glad that he was -- I don't know if he was able to see them or how he knew that the Marines were there, but I am thankful far moment because who knows what we would be doing right now if that hadn't happened.

COLBY: David Williams, the most senior soldier of the group had taken "The Post" reports a lead role during the POWs' captivity. He saw the Marines retreat and, shouted out I am an American. Now as the POWs make their way home, Michelle says she's making plans to have her husband adjust to life as a freeman.

WILLIAMS: I'm not assuming he's going to be the person he was when he left because of the experiences that he's gone through. And I think the fact that I know what that what I'm getting isn't going to be what was gone, but the love that we have for each other, the support that we have for each other, I think, is just going to get us through it no matter what -- what lies ahead.

COLBY (on camera): How has he described the relationship that has built between the seven POWs?

WILLIAMS: He said he loves them. He was talking about them coming home and when they'd be able to come home. Says that really he's enjoying the time with them right now.

COLBY (voice-over): At home with her family, Michelle a Black Hawk pilot herself understands it may take time for David to return to the U.S., though the process of reintegration has begun.

WILLIAMS: He's really anxious to get home and be with his family. And I know that he won't leave the others until they're all ready to come home. So as long as it takes for everybody to get ready to come home, I guess I'll be patient for that as well, but I know he's ready to come home.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLBY: And it has taken a lot of patience and a lot of courage. Later today, Michelle, like many of the POW families will be visited by a repatriation officer from the military who will explain the counseling process and what families can expect from these soldiers when they return. She says she'll also be visited by a chaplain that has helped her through this difficult time. And the details of his homecoming including an Easter meal they're planning. And if you'll pan over besides me, along with the POW flag and a monument that was put in place after David was captured, this lawn that you're looking at was just laid down in their new home which they moved into just days before he left, this morning -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Thank you very much, Jamie. Appreciate it and we do, in fact know you're in Fort Hood -- especially now, thank you very much. A happy military installation as well.

We'll check in with Christiane Amanpour who is in Baghdad and continue watching the situation at Ramstein Air Base. We'll take a break and be back with more in just a bit.

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