Prisoners of war fly home to rapturous welcome a month after their capture

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The Independent Online

America averted its eyes from events in Iraq over the weekend to celebrate the return home of seven former prisoners of war with rapturous flag-waving and chants of "USA, USA".

America averted its eyes from events in Iraq over the weekend to celebrate the return home of seven former prisoners of war with rapturous flag-waving and chants of "USA, USA".

The rescued soldiers arrived at Fort Bliss, near El Paso in Texas, late on Saturday to be met by overjoyed relatives and thousands of well-wishers. Two of the men, both Apache helicopter pilots, were then flown to Fort Hood, their own base, also in Texas, for a similar reception.

George Bush, who was spending the weekend at his Texas ranch, flew by helicopter to Fort Hood yesterday for a brief meeting with the pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young and Chief Warrant Officer David Williams.

The seven soldiers are fast becoming household names in the United States. Most of the former PoWs spent quiet moments with their families at their homes yesterday before having medical tests today.

CWO Young told 1,500 cheering colleagues, friends and family members at Fort Hood: "I say a special prayer each night for our fallen comrades, for the soldiers that didn't make it home, and the ones that are still over there. I want everyone to remember them in their prayers."

The pilots appeared overwhelmed at times. As they walked from their plane at Fort Hood to the waiting throng, along a red carpet, CWO Young said: "This almost makes me as nervous as being shot at."

The media shone the brightest spotlight on CWO Williams, who met his wife, Michelle Williams, in the military. She is a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who avoided speaking to the press during her husband's captivity for fear of compromising his safety. The couple have two children.

He said yesterday: "I'm speechless. It feels good to be home and let's keep praying for all those soldiers who are still fighting. God bless America. I love you."As he stepped down from the podium, he embraced his father and wife. Russell Tucker, an uncle of Williams, addressed him, saying: "We cannot tell you how excited we are. It was devastating what we went through and all of a sudden it's like the sun coming up after a stormy night."

Specialist Shoshana Johnson, who was shot in both ankles, got a special cheer from onlookers as she was helped to her feet and waved the flags of the US and Panama, where she was born. The five Fort Bliss soldiers, all members of an Army maintenance unit, were captured and nine comrades were killed in an attack on 23 March near Nasiriyah.

They were picked up later in northern Iraq. Private Jessica Lynch, of the same unit, was rescued from a hospital in a commando raid on 1 April and is now recuperating in Washington.

The soldiers had spent three weeks incarcerated, before their Iraqi captors fled in the face of advancing Allied troops. They said they had been beaten and verbally abused but they also confirmed that they had received medical attention and had not been subject to torture.

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