FT. BLISS, Texas -- Col. Fred Hudson put down the telephone early Sunday morning, stepped outside his house on "Colonel's Row," as the young soldiers call it, and stared at a flagpole jutting from a nearby parade field. The morning air was still, and the black prisoners of war flag that had hung for three weeks like a circling vulture was limp.
Now it can come down, Hudson thought.
Elation flooded communities across the nation Sunday with word that Iraqi troops near Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit had handed over seven captured U.S. soldiers. After their release to Marines marching north, the soldiers were ferried by helicopter to an air base near Al Kut, south of Baghdad, then walked under their own power into the belly of a C-130 aircraft, which flew them to Kuwait.
After 22 days in captivity, the soldiers were a ragtag bunch -- they were dirty and hungry, and some were dressed in curious pajamas. But they were smiling. And by Sunday evening, doctors had cleared them to travel to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the first stop on a long journey home.
"Elation!" said Natalie Hudson, who received a phone call at her mother's home in El Paso at 6 a.m. Sunday telling her that her husband, Spc. Joseph Neal Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M., was safe. "No, it's not elation. It's ecstasy! We're ecstatic."
Joseph's mother, Anecita Hudson, 51, of Alamogordo heard the news even earlier than Natalie. Anecita got a call from her sister in Japan at 5:30 a.m. Sunday. In a phone interview, Anecita was so excited, she could barely speak.
"I saw Joseph on TV, and he looked like he was laughing!" Anecita said. "I'm so happy. I'm so, so happy."
In El Paso, when Spc. Shoshana Johnson's mother, Eunice, answered the door at her home, a visiting friend, truck driver Ken Krueger, threw back his head and roared a "yee-haw" that could be heard around the neighborhood.
In Wichita, Kan., a Baptist congregation erupted in cheers and wept with joy when the Rev. Ron Pracht announced that Pfc. Patrick Wayne Miller, 23, was safe.
In Lithia Springs, Ga., Kaye Young watched choppy video of her 26-year-old son, Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., running toward a waiting aircraft and safety. She worried that he looked thin, and smiled. It was good to be a regular mother again.
And here at Ft. Bliss, Fred Hudson, a chaplain, threw away the notes he had prepared for Palm Sunday.
Hudson had prepared an appropriately dark sermon, titled "When Darkness Reigns" and detailing the week leading up to the Crucifixion. But he threw it out at the last moment and announced the release of the prisoners to a jubilant crowd of soldiers and their families.
It has been a torturous three weeks at this sprawling Army base, home to five of the seven rescued POWs.
On March 23, about three dozen soldiers from Ft. Bliss' 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company, en route to connect with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, stopped to repair two stalled vehicles near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. A well-organized group of Iraqi forces, believed to be from the Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary unit, attacked.
At least nine U.S. soldiers were killed, devastating the military community at Ft. Bliss and in neighboring El Paso.
Friday, Ft. Bliss held a memorial service for the nine dead soldiers, and Hudson said in an interview that he had already begun planning for a second memorial. He had assumed -- like most here -- that the POWs were dead.
"I was just looking at their pictures the other night and thinking about the next memorial," Hudson said.
"I was thinking: Did you have to suffer before you died? Will we find your remains? This is literally too good to be true. This is an answer to so many prayers. It is a feeling of absolute joy."
Along with Johnson, Hudson and Miller, the rescued members of the 507th were Spc. Edgar Adan Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas; and Sgt. James Joseph Riley, 31, of Pennsauken, N.J.
At some point during the ordeal, Johnson was shot in the ankle and Hernandez was shot in the elbow, officials said. Neither injury was considered life-threatening.
"I feel that my heart wants to burst out of my chest," Maria De La Cruz Hernandez said in Spanish after learning her son, Edgar, was free. "I'm going to have a heart attack here with so much happiness."
Drivers who passed the family bungalow in South Texas responded to a sign that said "Honk for Edgar" by beeping their horns or stopping to join the party.
The two other POWs freed Sunday were Young and Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando Fla., the pilots of an Apache helicopter downed on March 23, the same day as the Nasiriyah battle. Young and Williams are based at Ft. Hood, Texas.
"I've always remained positive," said Williams' father, David Williams Sr., who was with his son's wife, Michelle, and their two children at Ft. Hood. "When you believe in God as I do and my son does, you know he will come back home safely."
Three service members involved in the Nasiriyah firefight are classified as missing. They are: Army Sgt. Edward J. Anguiano, 24, of Brownsville, Texas; Marine Cpl. Kemaphoom A. Chanawongse, 22, of Waterford, Conn.; and Marine Pvt. Nolen R. Hutchings, 19, of Boiling Springs, S.C.
Privately, military officials said word of the rescue -- which came in an early morning phone call to the Ft. Bliss chief of staff, Col. Ben Hobson -- caught them completely off-guard.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the conventional wisdom in the Army was that Iraqi soldiers were "vicious" and certainly would have executed the POWs once U.S. forces descended on Baghdad. Instead, the seven soldiers handed over Sunday appeared to be in remarkably good condition.
"Not only were these soldiers found, but it turns out they were treated well," the official said. "It goes against everything we were told about the Iraqis. It's an amazing day."
That was clear by Sunday evening -- but at first, Jane and Athol Riley refused to grant themselves hope. Even after U.S. military officials assured the couple that their son was safe, they couldn't believe it, they said. After they returned from worshiping at Grace Episcopal Church, a CNN reporter offered to let the Rileys view images of their son in a television van.
The video showed a group of disheveled and fatigued soldiers, hardly reminiscent of the powerful force that toppled Baghdad so quickly. But there he was, plain as day.
"That's him!" they shouted.
James Riley's father, known as Al, said he was certain all along that his son would be able to withstand captivity. He described the mechanic as a "stubborn and self-reliant workaholic who can't stand to be away from his tools. I always thought he would have a better chance at this than anybody else because of his makeup."
Freedom was, quite literally, a dream come true.
In El Paso, Phyllis Hudman said she had a dream this weekend that her son-in-law, Joseph Hudson, was home, eating and talking at a party.
"I'd wake up and go back to sleep, and go right back into the same dream," she said. When she woke up early Sunday morning and saw Joseph's beaming face on television, she said, "I raised my hand to heaven and said, 'Thank you, God.' "
Now planning for that party is under way.
Ron Voltz, a retired veteran and another Alamogordo resident, is scheduled to meet with the mayor this morning to plan a coming-home party.
"A lot of us were resigned to the fact that they had already been killed," Voltz said. "You can imagine how this feels. I'm sure there are people all over town, all across the country, saying, 'Oh my God.' You can almost hear the sigh of relief."
That sense of relief, however, remains darkened with sadness for those who were not so lucky.
"We will always miss those that we lost. We will never forget them," said Cindy King, whose husband, Army Capt. Troy King, is the commander of the 507th Ordnance Maintenance Company. "But at the same time, this gives hope to everyone here. It's a good ending."
Chaplain Hudson said the swing of emotions has left the entire post exhausted.
"It's hard to put the contrast into words," he said. "We've been going through so much grief. Now there is such joy, but we continue to grieve."
Times staff writer Robert Lopez and researchers Lianne Hart and Rennie Sloan contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun