''I just want him to come home alive,'' says the mother of one captive. Other families cling to the same hope.
March 25, 2003
One soldier described himself as simply a mechanic, someone who fixes things. Another's family thought she was an Army cook, relatively safe from the horrors of the front lines. A third was planning to leave the service to join the U.S. Border Patrol.
They are sons and brothers, a husband, a mother. Now a handful of Americans have gained a chilling new title -- prisoners of war.
Around the country, their tearful families wait for word, terrified of what has happened since their capture, even more terrified of the unknowns to come.
U.S. officials demand the captives be protected under the Geneva Conventions. But the conventions mean little to the mother who hugs her son's photograph, clutches her rosary beads and weeps.
"I don't want him to get cold, and I don't want him to get hungry. I just want him to come home alive," said Anecita Hudson of Alamogordo, N.M., after seeing her 23-year-old son, Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, interviewed on Iraqi television Sunday as a POW. The interview was carried on a Filipino station the family receives.
In the video, Hudson and his fellow POWs -- three other men and a woman -- are asked their names, hometowns, ages, and to explain what they are doing in Iraq. Along with footage of the prisoners, the Iraqi tape contained gruesome images of bodies identified as dead U.S. soldiers.
Asked about his mission in Iraq, Hudson stared defiantly at the camera as a yellow microphone was thrust into his face. "I follow orders," he said grimly.
His mother watched and wept again. Her son, a Fort Bliss, Texas, soldier assigned to the 507th Maintenance Co., joined the military to provide for his wife and 5-year-old daughter, she said. He's a mechanic, not a fighter.
In Kansas, another family watched the tape with the same mixture of tears and dread as Pfc. Patrick Miller appeared on the screen.
Gone was the bravado of a soldier heading off to war. Gone was assurance that this young father of two expressed, telling his mother and wife that he would come home safely. After all, reasoned Miller, a welder, he was in a support unit, not a combat unit.
Instead his family in Park City, Kan., saw a pale, nervous 23-year-old who answered questions in a shaky voice, whose eyes blinked nervously from behind round glasses.
Asked by the Iraqis why he came to their country, Miller, also with the 507th, stammered, "I come to fix broke stuff."
Asked if he came to shoot Iraqis, he answered, "No, I come to shoot only if I am shot at."
Watching the video, Miller's half brother, 27-year-old Thomas Hershberger, cringed.
"He's always such a tough guy," Hershberger said. "It was hard to see him looking so scared." Miller joined the military last summer to help pay student loans, he said.
For now, Hershberger said, the family doesn't know what to think.
"We are just trying to be optimistic that because he was captured, he will not be killed," Hershberger said.
The family of another POW was clinging to the same hope.
Relatives of 30-year-old Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson spoke to NBC's Today show Monday about their fears for the single mother from Texas who loved nothing more than cooking for family and caring for her 2-year-old daughter. As the daughter of a retired serviceman, who grew up in the Fort Bliss area, she has the military in her blood, they said.
But, like other POW families, they assumed she was in a support group that was unlikely to come face-to-face with the enemy.
"I thought she was cooking," an aunt, Margaret Henderson of Miramar, told Today.
Nothing had prepared them for the sight of a frightened looking Johnson, with a bandaged ankle, nervously answering questions from her captors.
"Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are out there," said a cousin, Tracy Thorne. "You never think that one of your family members would be one of those to be taken captive. It just never dawned on me that it would hit so close to home."
In Mission, Texas, the mother of 21-year-old Edgar Hernandez, also shown on the Iraqi video, had a message for her battered-looking son.
"To have faith in God and he will bring you back," Maria De La Luz Hernandez said in Spanish. Hernandez's face looked swollen and cut.
Hernandez was serving as a supply truck driver. "His job really is not that dangerous," said his brother, Joel, "but once you're out there, anything you do is dangerous I guess."
U.S. military officials did not immediately release identities of the soldiers, who Iraqi television reported were caught in an ambush near An Nasiriyah, a major crossing point over the Euphrates northwest of Basra. However, it was confirmed that some of the prisoners had been stationed at Fort Bliss, where a spokesman described the mood as "tragic."
The other POW on the Iraqi videotape was identified as Sgt. James Riley from Pennsauken, N.J.
In an interview on MSNBC, his parents said the family lived in New Zealand until Riley was 10, then moved to Pennsauken. He entered the military after graduating from Pennsauken High School because "that's what he always wanted to do," his mother, Jane, said Monday.