There's been considerable uncertainty over what you were doing there that
day, and especially, where you were. There are some suggestions that you may
have strayed at times across into Yugoslavia--therefore from the Serb point of
view, you'd be a legitimate target in time of war. Tell me what happened, and
where were you when it happened?|
On March 31, myself and the two other soldiers, Andy and Steve, were conducting
a reconnaissance mission of a route that we would use as sort of an escape
route--a secondary escape route in case something did happen, if troops did
come across the border from Yugoslavia. This was an area that we'd operating
in for about a month now. The villages were all familiar to us. The roads
were all familiar to us. As we were coming back from performing that
reconnaissance, we had just gone through a village and we ran into what turned
out to be a deliberate ambush. It was set up to perhaps accomplish exactly
what did happen.
How did the skirmish actually unfold?
As we drove past the village, we began hearing pings on the back of our Humvee,
which we felt were rocks. That was common. . . . So we brought our gunner,
Steve Gonzales down into the truck, and decided to drive out of the area. . . .
to get away from whatever was happening. But after that point, we began taking
rounds from all sides, and we began to see soldiers appearing from behind
haystacks or rocks or boulders. There were about 30 of them, and they just
appeared out of nowhere. That's what led us to believe that it was
At that point, you radioed to your base to tell them that you were under
attack. Tell me about that dialogue. What did your base say to you?
That's correct. The other guys had their own responsibilities. As commander,
my job was to call. So I grabbed the radio, and called up my platoon sergeant,
who was back at one of the positions. I told him that we were surrounded, and
we were taking fire. I also gave him the position where we were. Evidently
they didn't get all the coordinates of whatever our global positioning system
said, and they only heard the first three digits.
My platoon sergeant asked me if I was joking. I told him I wasn't joking, and
that this was really happening. That's the last I heard, because something
went wrong with the radio transmission--maybe the antenna was shot off, or some
other condition happened that it was broken.
At that point, were you fighting back? Or was it obvious that that was
hopeless, given the scale of the ambush?
It certainly was hopeless. We'd already pulled our gunner down back into the
vehicle, and that was basically our only defensive weapon on top of the Humvee.
Also, in the peacekeeping mode that we were in, as a safety precaution, we
didn't have our weapons loaded and ready to fire.
You surrendered at that point?
It wasn't in the Hollywood sense where we put the white flag out, but we did
exit the truck after we became immobile. We couldn't move any longer, so our
decision was to get out. We were immediately surrounded by probably 30
soldiers on the three of us, so the odds were just a little too great.
Obviously, you couldn't resist 30 of them. What was their reaction to the
fact that you were clearly giving up?
I think they saw us each as punching bags at that point. There were probably
between five or six soldiers on each of us, kicking and beating us and
generally stripping all our equipment from us, and putting a lot of abuse on
all three of us.
Was it obvious to you these were Serb forces?
Yes, it was. They were dressed in Serbian uniforms, and we recognized the
patches on their shoulders. While this was happening, there were a lot of
villagers standing around, and they made no effort to help the soldiers. But
they didn't obviously weren't interested in helping us, either.
What was going through your mind at that point? Did you think they were
going to kill you, right there and then?
I did. And obviously I was in shock. We were driving through familiar
territory. I'd been through that village probably ten times in the last month,
so just to be thrust in that situation so quickly and have this happen was very
surprising. Immediately after they pulled us out and roughed us up, they took
us back into the village. We were all placed on our knees, the three of us
with our hands behind our head. They put a rifle to the back of my head, so
obviously my reaction was that this was a classic execution position. I really
believed that was the end.
How long were you in that position, until it was obvious that they were not
going to execute you?
I would say probably for about minute we were in that position, until they
pushed us forward. Then we were laying on our stomachs as they continued to
search and beat us, and they were all standing around at this point, just kind
Did they say anything to you that you understood?
Not particularly. There was some cursing. Obviously they were familiar with
English slang. There was a lot of accusing us of invading their country. This
was in real broken English, and we'd just pick up phrases. They asked us who
we were and what we were doing, implying that we were not where we were
supposed to be. But other than that, the English was very rare.
Do you think that they were under the mistaken impression that you had
actually entered Yugoslavia?
I don't think they were, because it was such a deliberate ambush, and it was
such an identifiable location that was clearly in Macedonia. In fact, that
village is not in one of the contested areas--although the border is
contested--so it was clear that we were in Macedonia. I don't know if their
intent was to make us believe that we were in the wrong place. That would
probably be the most likely thing. That's my opinion.
What happened to you next? You've gone through this mock execution. What
There was some more searching going on, with different people. That's when
their senior leadership began to take over what was happening. As we laid
there, we would continue to get beaten. Someone would come running up and kick
us. The black eyes that I got were from a kick that I received while I was
laying there, after the initial beating took place.
What did they actually do to you to break your nose?
A man came up from my left side and just kicked me with full force, right in
the face. My nose immediately began to gush blood. After that, they did bring
up some gauze and put it on my nose after he kicked me. This stopped the
bleeding, but that was probably the harshest blow.
What happened to you after that? At the moment you're not even in
Yugoslavia. What happens next?
We were probably there in that position for 15 or 20 minutes. Then we were
just thrown into the back of a truck. They drove for about an hour or so, at
first through twisting, bumpy roads, and then what seemed to be a major
Where did you end up at the end of this journey?
That's a good question. We're not exactly sure where. The first place we did
stop looked like some kind of army barracks, and that's where we received our
first medical attention. They looked at us and evaluated whatever wounds we
had sustained. We stayed there for about a half an hour, then we drove for
another couple hours. I believe we ended up in Nis, a city in southern
You were still together at this point?
We were together up until when we arrived in Nis. That's when we were
separated, and didn't see each other much, except for the filming that you saw.
. . .
What led up to the filming? What were you being told what to say? What was
the purpose of it?
Once we got to Nis, we were individually in a room where they had sort of a
press conference set up. There were cameras, and civilian and military
officials there, and they began to question me. I assume they did the same
with the others. The purpose of their questioning was not necessarily anything
that was in our spectrum of knowledge. It was basically political questions,
policies of the government, the purpose of the bombing, and things that really
I had no knowledge of or any relevance in discussing with them. We weren't
told what to say. It was more of an interview, a question-and- answer
At that point, were they suggesting that you sign any documents indicating
that you were opposed to US policy?
No, no. That was never presented. We were asked to make a statement a couple
of days later. But all it told was that we were part of NATO in an effort to
invade the peaceful people of Serbia. I'm not sure if it actually said
"peaceful," but it said I had invaded the country of Yugoslavia.
Was it around this time that they began a fairly concerted effort to debrief
you, but by using torture? Was that something that happened to you after you
appeared before the cameras?
The cameras were there very early in the capture, probably within the first six
or seven hours. After that point, they began interrogations, which continued
with the same line of questioning--not necessarily focusing on our mission or
what our purpose was, but the greater picture of how our army operated, and
what not. There was also a form of torture involved, in that we'd be left for
hours and hours.
The whole time we were hooded and handcuffed, with bags over our head. That in
itself was a form of torture, in that we would never know what was happening.
We never knew when we'd be interrogated. We were watched with a guard maybe
feet from us 24 hours a day. If we moved from a certain position, we'd be
kicked or beaten. It was definitely an effort to break our will.
What was going through your mind at the time? Were you fearful that you
weren't going to be able to resist this kind of interrogation, that you would
I didn't see exactly that they were looking from me to break personally, so
that wasn't my main concern. My main concern throughout the whole time was if
we would even get out of that situation, because there were so many different
circumstances when it appeared to be a good time for them to kill us. Within
that first seven days, I was just preparing myself for the fact that we may not
make it out of there.
Were there any other occasions where they threatened you with execution, as
they had in that first few minutes of your capture?
There was. At one point during the interrogation, they had asked me to give
the address of my family back in the States. and I didn't give that to them. I
didn't tell them, and at that point, one of the guys came around me with a
baton. He brought it around my neck, and one of the other guys lifted up his
coat showing a revolver, implying that if I didn't tell them, then obviously
they'd kill us. But was something I just was not going to do, and it wasn't
pressured after that point. I don't know if that was a bluff or what, but
luckily they didn't pressure me anymore.
Did they make it clear to you that they didn't regard you as prisoners of
war? Even their foreign ministry was referring to you as terrorists and
spies--and that, therefore you didn't have the kind of protections that would
be afforded to you under the Geneva Convention.
Right. They continued to imply that throughout the initial period. Throughout
the interrogations, they believed we were either an effort sent in to find
downed pilots, or we were the lead element of some kind of ground invasion. We
were never specifically told we were POWs. In fact, they did mention at one
point that we would be put on trial, and that would determine what would happen
to us. That was obviously a question I asked many times--what was going to
happen. They said that it's for the court to decide, that you'll be tried as a
war criminal. . . . That was only mentioned once, and after that we never heard
anything about it.
In this period, isolation one of their chief weapons. You didn't have the
opportunity of talking to the other two?
Oh, certainly. We didn't have the opportunity at all to talk to anyone other
than in the interrogations, which were not exactly conversations. So we were
left in the dark with a bag over our head, handcuffed, laying on a wooden
floor, 24 hours a day. Their intent was obviously that kind of torture.
Were you aware of the significant efforts made by the Cypriot government to
try and seek your release? And Jesse Jackson was applying diplomatic pressure,
before you actually met him, to try and get your release. Did you know there
were efforts underway to try and get you out?
No, we had no idea what was happening, aside from my own personal belief that
that was happening. At several points, they had told us that the government
hadn't asked for our release. They asked why did I think that they hadn't
asked for it? I didn't believe that, and I knew that wasn't the case. But as
far as the Cypriot president's efforts and Reverend Jackson's efforts, we had
no knowledge at all of what was happening in the political issues of our
When you were taken out of your cell and brought in to meet Reverend
Jackson, did you know where you were going and for what reason?
No. We were brought to a new place at that time, moved from the prison where
we had been at for several weeks, to a new building. Until we walked into the
room, until they opened the door of the room where we met him, I had no idea
what would happen in there. I wasn't sure if it was another interrogation, or
if it was some kind of trial that they had threatened so long ago. Really, it
could've been anything.
What was going through your mind when you walked through the door?
Presumably, you recognized him immediately?
Right. Obviously, I was just shocked to see these faces. . . . I did
recognize him immediately, and he introduced himself, which I found kind of
strange. I was speechless at the time. I really didn't know what to say,
because I had anticipated the worst could happen here. I wasn't expecting to
see a friendly face or expecting to see someone who was there to offer some
encouragement. So, at first I couldn't even talk. I was just speechless.
What did he tell you he was there to do? Did he give you the belief that
perhaps he was going to be able to secure release, or he just wanted to come as
a humanitarian gesture to buck up your spirits?
He didn't offer any kind of explanation as to why he was there. All he did was
offer some words of encouragement. He gave some prayer, inspiration and some
words from the Bible or some scripture. Other than that, it wasn't clear, and
I wasn't expecting that he was there for that reason. In fact, I had
anticipated he was there with the other people as some sort of humanitarian
mission to find out how we were--to make sure of our treatment, and things like
that. The next day, when we met with him the second time, he began to hint at
the fact they were working on our release. That was the first I had any idea
of why they were there.
What was going through your mind at that point? Did you think it was
I didn't. I had listened to the air raid sirens every day, several times a
day, and I always believed that as long as the war was still going on, there
was no reason for them to release us. So when the members were hinting that
they were working for our release, I was filled with hope, but I was very
skeptical. I was trying to keep myself from getting my hopes up too high.
How did you find out that you were going to be released?
That Saturday night that we had met with him earlier in the day, I was sitting
in the cell. One of the senior prison officials came in, who we had only seen
a couple of times, mainly when we were brought in there. He was in civilian
clothes. It was late at night, right around bedtime when they'd usually to
tell us to go to sleep. He came into the cell, told me to sit down, and he sat
down next to me.
He didn't speak any English and, but he spoke a couple of words and he said
"Home," and he made an ascent of an airplane with his hand. He said, "Home
over the USA," or something like that. I finally really believed that maybe it
would happen. That's when I first started to accept it a little bit. I wasn't
saying, "Okay, it's over now, that's it," but it was definitely very
encouraging that he was there, and it seemed like it was really going to
You had another 12 hours to wait until you finally got out of the cell and
were handed over to Jackson. That must have been a very hard night.
Yes, it was. It was probably the longest night that I've ever had.
After his visit, they made a big production of getting all our stuff packed
up--some books and some hygiene products that the Red Cross had brought. So
we're all packed up. . . . I was sitting there on the bed waiting. . . . I
think they were under the impression that that we'd be moved that night. But
then around midnight one of the normal guards came in and said in broken
English that it wouldn't happen until the morning--it was unsafe to go out that
night because of the bombing. He told us to go to sleep and we'd leave in the
morning. That was impossible. Sleep wasn't something that I could've done,
and I didn't all that night, except for maybe an hour before sunrise. I lay
there all night, hoping and praying that it was really going to happen.
You were finally handed over to Jesse Jackson. Do you remember what he told
you when you finally realized that you were leaving that prison cell
I do. We were standing against the wall after they had done the signing and he
said, "The first thing I want you to do is take your hands from behind your
back, because you are now free, you're free to embrace." That's what he
said--his exact words--I remember it quite clearly. And so we did. We walked
up to him and this huge religious delegation was there. They hugged us. We
got to use the phone and call our families, so it was just terribly emotional.
He would later dub me as "the weeping prophet" because often, throughout that
course of time, I had trouble not crying. I was always so filled with emotion.
It was just an unbelievable feeling. It wasn't quite over until we were out of
Yugoslavia, and I think all three of us were still on edge until we were
totally clear of the area.
Did you have any thoughts as you were leaving? It occurs to me that you may
well have gone through towns that had been the victims of the American allied
bombing campaign. You clearly were able to differentiate between the guards
and civilians, the Serb people. Did you have any feelings of what is all this
about, and what have we inflicted on these people? Did those thoughts go
through your mind?
As a human being, you do think things like that. You can recognize the fact
that nations war against each other, armies war against each other, and the
people of an entire nation are not always enemies. With the kind of person I
am, there was a sense of regret that this terrible conflict was still
happening. Clearly, it was no good for anyone. No war is, but the outcome was
just. I had to keep that in perspective--that what we were fighting for was
right, and it was just. The implications of that had to be accepted.
Is there any sort of overwhelming memory that comes back from that? Is there
a lesson that you felt you took away from it that in some way mitigates the
suffering you went through?
I do. When I look back on it and see all the hardship that we had to go
through, it makes it easier to think that you may have gotten stronger. I
became a better person because of it, and I'll be able to deal with adversity
in my life in a better way, using that as a reference. For the rest of my
life, I'll be able to say that no matter what hardships I face, if I had the
strength to go through that, I can certainly deal with this.
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