WASHINGTON -- Five Army members -- two women and three men -- became yesterday the first of 21 repatriated prisoners of war to be honored with medals for the wounds and anguish they endured at the hands of their Iraqi captors.
In presenting the medals yesterday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl E. Vuono described the former POWs as "magnificent soldiers . . . the embodiment of the spirit, courage and sacrifice" of the more than 500,000 U.S. servicemen and women who served in the Persian Gulf.
"For each of you, Desert Storm has a much more personal side," he said in the ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "You have paid a steep price in the name of freedom."
Pentagon officials said earlier this week that Iraqi soldiers physically abused U.S. POWs, subjecting some to psychological torment, beatings and threats. The military has so far refused to allow the former prisoners to speak for themselves. Some were expected to do so, however, at a news conference today.
One of the decorated soldiers, Spc. Melissa A. Rathbun-Nealy, 21, became even more the focus of attention yesterday when she turned up at a post-awards party with a fiance, a transport specialist who had served with her in the gulf war.
At a private celebration with family and friends of the former POWs after the ceremony, a smiling Specialist Rathbun-Nealy, wearing her uniform, stood hand-in-hand with a young man dressed in a loose-fitting blue and black cotton suit -- amid a congratulatory stream of Army brass, nurses, relatives, friends and fans.
Specialist Rathbun-Nealy, originally from Grand Rapids, Mich., where her parents still live, spurned all questions from a reporter who briefly gained admittance.
But her companion confided that they were engaged to be married, probably in August.
Although reluctant to speak to a stranger, he gave his name as Spc. Michael Coleman of the 233rd Transport Company, 70th Ordnance Battalion, based at Fort Bliss, Texas -- the same unit as his fiancee. They had been going steady, he said, for about two years and decided last year on marriage, about the time they were sent to Saudi Arabia. He declined to answer other questions.
The small auditorium in which the ceremony took place was crammed with relatives of the former POWs, assorted military officers, reporters and TV cameras.
The other 16 former prisoners are members of the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. The Army was the first service to issue awards.
Only four of the five former Army prisoners were well enough to attend the ceremony. Staff Sgt. Daniel J. Stamaris, 31, was reported to be in intensive care in another part of the hospital, recovering from two operations he was said to have had since
returning from the Middle East on Sunday. He was injured in a helicopter crash.
The others honored yesterday were Maj. Rhonda L. Cornum, 36, a flight surgeon from Freeville, N.Y.; Infantry Spc. Troy A. Dunlap, 20, of Massac County, Ill.; and Spc. David Lockett, 24, of Bessemer, Ala., a motor transport operator who was captured with Specialist Rathbun-Nealy.
General Vuono pinned three medals -- the Purple Heart, Prisoner of War and National Defense Service -- on each of the four, and in a private bedside ceremony, pinned the same on Sergeant Stamaris.