21 Former U.S. POWs, Some in Bandages, Flying Home : Goodbys: Most carry flowers given them by Bahrain officials. One is celebrating her 21st birthday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Of the many so-longs, goodbys, farewells, this was the sweetest--21 American prisoners of war walking, limping, hobbling on crutches or being carried on a stretcher into a plane to fly home.

In clean flight suits and camouflage desert fatigues, bandaged but otherwise healthy, all of the known former POWs from the Persian Gulf War left Saturday night for home, for rest, for VIP welcomes.

"Great. . . . Great. . . . Great," each offered a grin and a triumphant one-word description of the rapid repatriation and quick hopscotch trip home from Baghdad.

Most of the former prisoners carried bouquets of flowers handed to them by Bahrain officials.

Happy Birthday! Reporters joined in the story briefly when Army Specialist Melissa Rathbun-Nealy of Newaygo, Mich., strode into the Bahrain airport. This day she turned 21.

How do you feel?

"Fine, I feel real good, thank you," she replied as she walked through a reception lounge, down a corridor and into a 707 with "United States of America" painted on the side. Military officials said this was the same plane that had ferried U.S. Embassy hostages out of Iran in 1981.

Air Force Capt. William F. Andrews, 32, of Syracuse, N.Y., his foot in a cast, was one of two men to walk with crutches. "I'm just very happy to be seeing my family again."

What is the first thing you're going to do?

"Give my wife a hug."

In Vietnam, the POWs had disappeared for up to seven years, haunting political pawns in a war that seemed without end. Here, the war--and capture and release and return home--took just seven weeks, and the painful POW politics that left America unnerved in the opening days of the air war had all but evaporated at the end.

Doctors who treated the 21 former prisoners aboard the Navy hospital ship Mercy said they "are in pretty good condition considering the circumstances."

In fact, doctors seemed to grow more positive in their accounts after examining the POWs for several days and listening to their stories. Only one of them left on a stretcher, Army Sgt. Daniel J. Stamaris Jr., 31, of Boise, Ida. Stamaris, who was said to be suffering from spinal and leg injuries, flew to the United States in a military med-evac jet because there was no place for a gurney on the 707 flight.

The second woman in the group, Army Maj. Rhonda L. Cornum, 36, of Freeville, N.Y., her arms in slings and one eye discolored, smiled on her way home and said, "I feel absolutely super."

She had been aboard a search-and-rescue Blackhawk helicopter that was shot down near Basra on the closing day of the war.

Were you treated all right?

"Most of the time, yes," she replied.

When were you not?

"Well, the first day wasn't great."

Col. Dick Osborne, the head of medicine aboard the Mercy, responded to some rumors of mistreatment of POWs.

Osborne said that some of the POWs were not touched at all while others were "struck a lot" during interrogations. But, he added quickly, the roughing-up was not meant to inflict lasting damage on the prisoners and did not.

Curiously, some of the POWs told doctors that they were treated better and felt safer when in the hands of the Iraqi military than later in their captivity when they were turned over to civilians. Osborne said the civilians were probably secret police.

He said the prisoners did not feel that they were used as human shields in the war, as the Iraqis had once threatened to do. But they did suffer periods of isolation and were poorly fed, he said.

Iraqi medical treatment of the Americans was better than expected. "In some instances they tried--some Iraqis tried very hard . . . they apologized for not having the proper equipment," Osborne said.

During their few days on the Mercy, which is berthed on the island nation of Bahrain adjacent to Saudi Arabia, the POWs spent a lot of time together, talking about their experiences. Osborne called this an important and natural process, something like "grieving."

None of the former POWs wanted to say more than just a word or two. And a few, such as Navy Lt. Jeffrey N. Zaun, 28, of Cherry Hill, N.J., whose battered face and stilted words in front of Iraqi cameras haunted Americans in the early days of the war, said nothing at all.

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