Injured in their plane’s crash-landing and then taken hostage by
Colombian rebels, three U.S. defense contractors survived a jungle
odyssey lasting more than five grueling years.
After the hardships and pain they endured, Americans Keith Stansell,
Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes were awarded their country’s Defense of
Freedom Medal on Thursday.
The commander of the U.S. Southern
Command, Adm. James Stavridis, lauded the three for the “enormous
courage and dignity they showed every day in captivity” before he
pinned the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart on their suit
jackets in a ceremony at SouthCom headquarters in Miami.
“This closes a door on five years and three months,” Stansell declared. “I’m glad to put it behind me.”
of the physical toll exacted by the Feb. 13, 2003, crash of their
surveillance plane in southern Colombia — followed by years of
wrenching captivity — flooded back as the trio received a standing
ovation before about 240 military officers and personnel packing a
The emotional toll was worse than the physical one, the men said.
to bear were the memories of their previous lives before falling
hostage to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The men
recalled vivid dreams about homes and loved ones left behind, memories
rich in details such as the scent of a daughter’s shampoo. At times,
they said, such memories left them barely able to stand when they awoke
“It was like your brain had to develop a callous to protect itself,” Howes said.
Defense Department created the medal after the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks to honor contractors or employees injured or killed while
working for the Pentagon.
With Thursday’s ceremony, the medal now
has been awarded to 40 people. The three Northrop Grumman Corp.
contractors became the first so honored in SouthCom’s operational area
covering Latin America and the Caribbean.
The pride the men
expressed in receiving the medal was tempered by the knowledge that
other hostages still languish in the jungle they left behind. They
urged Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and others to press for the safe
return of those still held and to bring the captors to justice.
leftist guerrilla force, also known by the Spanish acronym FARC, seized
the three contractors after engine trouble forced their plane down in
territory the guerrillas control. Pilot Thomas Janis and Colombian Army
Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz were shot and killed soon after the crash, their
bodies later found by a recovery team near the plane’s wreckage.
former Air Force intelligence analyst, Gonsalves was in charge of
photographing drug crops and clandestine labs run by the FARC.
Stansell, a 44-year-old ex-Marine, was mission chief and Howes, 55, the
For 1,967 days, the men endured meager food rations,
forced marches through the jungle, debilitating parasites — and the
constant threat that they could be killed at any moment in the event of
a rescue attempt.
Gonsalves, 36, said living conditions were akin to concentration camps with “barely room to breathe.”
the medals were pinned to suit lapels, the three thanked their families
and rescuers. They recounted in low voices how they had held out of
faith of eventually being found.
Early in their captivity,
Stansell slipped Howes a secret note reading, “We’re not forgotten.
People are trying to get us out. We have family to go home to.”
Gonsalves told the crowd: “You were sending us reminders that you were looking for us.”
would hear this beautiful sound overhead,” Gonsalves said, imitating
the sound of the buzzing of a distant plane. “This gave us strength to
The three were rescued last July 2 along with 11
Colombians and French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt: military
agents posing as humanitarian workers tricked FARC rebels into putting
the hostages aboard a helicopter without a shot being fired.
Howes and Gonsalves said the daring rescue seemed suspicious at first:
the helicopter looked shoddy and the workers’ badges appeared fake. It
wasn’t until they were airborne and saw the blur of Colombian troops
swooping into a jungle clearing that they realized their freedom was at