Two Marine Corps fliers who spent 48 days as Iraqi prisoners of war, most of the time handcuffed and blindfolded in prisons in and around Baghdad, returned to their home base to a hero’s welcome Monday.
Shortly before dusk, the Air Force Lear jet that had carried Lt. Col. Clifford Acree and Chief Warrant Officer Guy L. Hunter Jr. from Washington touched down on a wind-swept Pendleton runway as hundreds of family members, friends, well-wishers and fellow Marines shouted their names and waved American flags and yellow balloons.
The two men were forced to eject from their damaged OV-10 Bronco reconnaissance plane on Jan. 18 and parachuted to the Kuwaiti desert, where they were seized by patrolling Iraqi soldiers.
For Acree, commander of Camp Pendleton’s Marine Aerial Observation Squadron 2, the homecoming included a poignant moment in which he officially resumed command of his 350-member squadron.
“Lt. Col. Acree, your squadron is now all present and accounted for,” said Marine Maj. Earl Tempe as Acree stood at stiff attention in front of his men and flags were unfurled and a band played “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Gaunt and tired, Acree, 39, is still undergoing treatment for neck injuries suffered when he ejected from his burning plane, as well as nerve damage in both hands from Iraqi handcuffs.
Like Acree, Hunter, 46, said little about his days in captivity. Squinting in the late afternoon sun, with his wife, Mary, and 6-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, by his side, Hunter said he was looking forward to a change in status now that he is back home.
“All I know,” he said, “is that I’m going to go home and sit and talk to my wife and change my name from Prisoner of War to Prisoner of Wife.”
After a week of recuperation at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington--where they tried to regain some of the 25 pounds each lost while in captivity--the pair were recently bestowed with several wartime medals including the Purple Heart, the POW Medal and the National Defense Service Medal.
Dressed in a crisp, olive-green Marine Corps flight suit and accompanied by his wife, Cindy, Acree talked of the giddy feeling of being free and being home again.
“Looking out there and seeing all of you,” he told the appreciative crowd, “I realize that it was only two weeks ago that I was in a cold, dark, filthy prison cell in Baghdad. At this moment, standing before this squadron, is a dream come true for me. And let me assure you, the honor is all mine.”
Acree drew laughs as he recalled the morning that he and Hunter were shot down by a surface-to-air missile as a “very bad day.”
Hunter, with Acree in the plane as his “back-seater,” was knocked semiconscious by the missile’s impact. In the next crucial minutes, as the aircraft fell earthward, Acree ejected Hunter before saving his own life.
The weeks as prisoners of war took their toll on both men. They spent much of the time in solitary confinement, handcuffed and blindfolded, and were fed a diet of bread and broth. They were beaten by their captors on several occasions.
On Feb. 23, they survived several direct allied bombing hits on the Baghdad prison where they were being kept.
Hunter said his darkest moments came when the allied bombs struck. “For me, it was the most terrifying moment, when the building was struck by the bombs.”
Acree said his worst moment came shortly after his capture when he endured his third consecutive day of interrogation. “I believe our captors knew how badly the war was going for them--I don’t know,” he said. “For me, it was hard to tell when you were blindfolded and handcuffed the whole time.”
All the while, the prisoners dreamed of their wives, their families and that first steak dinner they would have when they finally got out.
“I’m going to spend some quality time with my wife and get to every good restaurant in San Diego and eat,” Acree said.
Both men were forced to go before Iraqi television cameras by their captors, but neither mentioned that appearance Monday.