March 17th, 2009 22:52 EST
Former FARC Hostages Honored With Defense Of Freedom Medal
MIAMI - Three U.S. defense contractors held captive for more than five years by Colombian narcoterrorists were presented the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart award on March 12 during a ceremony at U.S. Southern Command headquarters.
Southcom Commander Navy Adm. James Stavridis presented the Defense of Freedom Medal to Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes.
All three were injured during 1,967 days of grueling captivity in the jungles of Colombia at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC. The group is classified by the United States and many other nations as a terrorist group.
"What a great moment this is," Stavridis said. "We welcome you back to Southern Command; you always have a home here. We are proud of all three of you."
For Southcom personnel in attendance, many of whom had worked to help secure the hostages` release, the ceremony was an emotional moment of triumph and a chance to express admiration.
"The men and women of the United States military are proud to have served with you and for you," said Robert Stewart, who, as Southcom`s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency representative, worked closely with the hostages` families during the ordeal.
The three contractors were crew members taking part in a routine aerial mission to detect cocaine crops over southern Colombia on Feb. 13, 2003, when engine problems forced the pilot to crash-land the aircraft. FARC members stormed the crash site and murdered pilot Thomas Janis, a U.S. citizen, and Colombian army Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz.
During the ceremony, Howes thanked the Southcom team and described a moment of difficulty early in captivity when Stansell slipped him a note of encouragement. "[The note] said, `We`re not forgotten, people are trying to get us out, and we have family to go home to,`" Howes told the crowd. "You folks are basically my family. You spent an incredible amount of time trying to get us out, and you never forgot us."
Stansell tearfully thanked his family, who was in attendance, singling out his father, a Korean War veteran. He also expressed gratitude to those who helped get him home.
"Don`t forget how great this country is and how fortunate we are to have our lives," Stansell told the crowd.
Gonsalves spoke about his experiences as a hostage and the fear of being forgotten.
"You were sending us reminders that you were looking for us," said Gonsalves, describing how he would hear the "buzz" of aircraft engines. "We would look up and try to see it, but we could never see it because it was up so high, and there were just so many trees. But we knew what it was, and that gave us strength to carry on.
"Thank you for never giving up on us. Thank you for doing everything that you did to bring us home," he said.
Their imprisonment came to a dramatic end on July 2, 2008, when Colombian military agents posing as humanitarian workers convinced the captors that they were taking the hostages to FARC leadership. The mission, conducted without a single shot being fired, also freed a dozen other hostages.
An Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft transported Gonsalves, Stansell and Howes later that day to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. They were transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center at neighboring Fort Sam Houston, where they underwent a medical evaluation, were reunited with their families, and received assistance to help them smoothly transition back into their lives as freed U.S. citizens.
During a press conference after the award ceremony, Stansell reiterated his gratitude to the Colombians for getting him home.
"I love Colombia. Tom and Mark love Colombia," Stansell said. "I want Americans to understand that there`s some tough things going on down there, but it`s a beautiful place, and a country we should support."
Southcom`s efforts to return Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes home began almost immediately after their capture.
During their captivity, the command devoted 17,000 flight hours, pursued hundreds of leads, and had a staff of 35 people dedicated full-time to try to secure their safe release. Additionally, 300 Defense Department and interagency personnel stood ready to support repatriation operations and to help the former hostages adjust to life afterward.
The Defense Department established the Defense of Freedom Medal following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to honor Defense Department employees and defense contractors injured or killed while supporting department activities. Including Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes, 40 people have received the award.