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Former ‘Human Shields’ Arrive in L.A. With Tales of Life in the Shadow of War : Homecoming: Their long ordeal in the Middle East taught them the true meaning of freedom, the returned hostages say.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

John Remington looked forward to coming off his “human shield” diet: “I plan to lean back, have a couple of long-neck beers and maybe a milkshake.”

Kevin Bazner looked back on his flawed tennis game: “I don’t think my game improved at all.”

And Bill Nelson looked at the crowds at Los Angeles International Airport, waved a tiny American flag and fell back on an old standby: “God bless America.”

Monday was Day 4 of the hostage-crisis-in-reverse, and Remington, Bazner, Nelson and other former captives found themselves besieged by American media instead of the policies of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In interviews ,the former hostages talked about the shadow of war that had hung over them.

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“It was the not knowing that got to you,” Bazner said, “not knowing whether you’d wake up the next morning and be in the middle of a war.”

“We didn’t know if the bombers would be coming in over the horizon or if it was going to be peace,” said another freed hostage, Gene Lovas of Westminster.

Every returned hostage has had a different story to tell. Some were “guests” of Hussein, and some stayed in hiding in Kuwait. If there is a common theme, it is a deeper appreciation of freedom.

“I feel free,” said Nelson. “I haven’t felt free for three months. If you’ve never had freedom taken away from you, you don’t understand.”

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“I’m still shaking,” Lovas, a Bechtel Corp. construction superintendent, said upon his return home. He grasped a glass of champagne in one hand and displayed the other, which trembled slightly. “It’s been a very, very tough 48 hours. . . . Right up until the last minute, I worried that this thing might somehow fall right apart.”

Lovas, 45, had hunkered since mid-August in the safe haven of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, sleeping on a storeroom floor. For nearly four months, his primary enemies were tedium, uncertainty and a lingering anxiety over what might lie ahead. He played cards or dominoes to pass the time and monitored the news reports.

Joseph Lammerding, who returned to his hometown of Sacramento on Monday night, was in hiding in Kuwait until Hussein announced amnesty for foreigners. Although Americans may celebrate the freeing of the hostages, conditions in Kuwait remain grim, he said.

Buildings are literally being dismantled and shipped to Baghdad, said Lammerding, who worked as a military adviser. He declined to discuss in detail how he lived out of fear of reprisals against Kuwaitis who aided him. He indicated that many Westerners, including several Americans, have chosen to stay in Kuwait.

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“The Kuwaiti people would like to pass on their gratitude for the support people here have given them,” Lammerding said. When he was asked about the United Nations’ Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait, he said: “The Kuwaitis would like to have them (U.S. and allied military forces) drop in one minute after the deadline if they (the Iraqis) are still here.”

Bazner, hosting a press conference on the patio of his parents’ Palm Desert home, also spoke of tedium and fear. The food “wasn’t too bad,” but uncertainty weighed heavily on the body and spirit.

Bazner, 35, said he had been held since mid-August with assorted other Americans and Britons at a heavily fortified chemical production plant near Iraq’s border with Syria. The captives there--whose numbers fluctuated between seven and 37--were among many foreigners used by President Hussein as human shields to deter a military attack on strategic Iraqi facilities.

Overall, Bazner said he was well cared for by his captors: “It wasn’t home, and it wasn’t the Hyatt, but we were not maltreated in any way.” The hostages slept on foam mattresses, he said, and were provided with a diet heavy on the “lamb and lentil soup.” Though under guard continuously, the captives had access to a radio with which they anxiously monitored news broadcasts.

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“We listened to BBC, Voice of America--anything we could find,” Bazner said. “For the most part, that was very helpful. But it was also frightening because of all the saber-rattling.”

Time, Bazner said, was his “greatest enemy” during the 17-week ordeal. Each day, the hostages in his group would rise, listen to news reports, eat breakfast and then turn to what became one of their favorite pastimes--Scrabble.

“We played a lot of cards and a lot of games,” Bazner recalled. “And we had some reading material.”

The hostages also were permitted to exercise up to four hours daily at a nearby athletic complex. Mostly, they walked or jogged in place. Bazner also played tennis almost every day with another American.

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Occasionally, one of the hostages’ spirits would sag. The tightknit group, Bazner said, would then rally around and support that person.

“It’s very tough losing your freedom. Freedom is something we take for granted,” Bazner said. “The key was just having faith--faith in God, in family, faith that the end would eventually come.”

Bazner, an executive with a soft drink company, might be called the accidental hostage. He, his wife, Dawn, and their two children were ensnared in the Iraqi crisis by chance when their plane landed in Kuwait city for refueling Aug. 2 while en route to their home in Malaysia. Soon after it landed, Kuwait was an occupied country.

The family was held in hotels for 15 days and then transported by bus to the chemical plant. Dawn Bazner and the children were released along with other captive women and children in September.

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Remington, Nelson and Jim Vine of Pasadena, a fellow former hostage who also arrived at LAX on Monday, all are employed by the Los Angeles-based architectural engineering firm of Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM). They were in Kuwait working on a university construction project. Several relatives and DMJM employees were present to welcome them home.

Nelson, a West Hills resident, said he feared death throughout the ordeal but kept his faith by thinking about God and his family. He said he kept a weapon in his room for protection but was never mistreated by his guards.

Nelson said he hopes that the crisis can be resolved peacefully. He said the first priority is to evacuate those still in Iraq and Kuwait.

Remington and wife Judy had been in Kuwait for seven months before their capture, living in a Kuwait city apartment tower where about a dozen other DMJM employes lived.

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On Sept. 5, Iraqi soldiers kicked down the door to the apartment and took them captive. Soon they were bused to Baghdad. His wife was among the first group of women and children who left Iraq.

Remington was held near the Iraqi city of Mosus, about 250 miles northwest of Baghdad. He was kept for a few days at a manufacturing plant and later moved to a research center and munitions plant, he said.

“I felt like we were at ground zero,” he said. “There was a lot of munitions fire at all hours of night, so it wasn’t a great thing for your peace of mind.”

Sometimes, Remington said, he thought he might never get out. “Those thoughts run through your mind. But I always felt it would be OK.”

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Physically, Remington said, he was in good shape. “I may have lost a pound or two, but I can’t say that’s a bad thing.”

Greeting him were his mother and father, Frank and Grace Remington of Buellton. “He looks great! Better than I expected,” his mother said as he exited the jet-way. “I think the first thing we’re going to do is feed him.”

As Remington stood talking to reporters, a son and daughter who are college students in Washington state came running up and smothered him with tearful hugs.

“Daddy!” said 20-year-old daughter Paige. “So good to have you home.”

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Times staff writers Ron Russell and Marc Lacey in Los Angeles, Eric Bailey in Westminster and Virginia Ellis in Sacramento also contributed to this report.


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