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.