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Mundane Is Marvelous for Ex-POW

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two weeks ago, his first morning back at Camp Pendleton after being held in Iraqi prisons 46 days, Chief Warrant Officer Guy Hunter went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and got his driver’s license.

Hunter had buried his wallet--with his license--in a mud flat in Kuwait after his plane was shot down because he didn’t want Iraqi soldiers to have pictures of his family or to know his home address.

It didn’t matter to Hunter that no San Diego policeman would be very likely, under the circumstances, to ticket the newly returned POW. But obtaining his license was an important step toward getting his life back in order.

“I can’t have my wife chauffeuring me around,” Hunter said.

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Held in solitary confinement in Baghdad prisons, Hunter had maintained his sanity by devising a list of errands he wanted to do upon his return. It was a list that he mentally juggled and re-ordered as he weighed his priorities.

“Each day was long. The nights were long--noon was long. Everything seemed long,” Hunter explained. “I was trying to make a list in my mind of what I was going to do, step-by-step, when I got home and what things needed to be taken care of. I would prioritize what I needed to do first on my list and then re-arrange the list.”

But no matter how he figured it, at the top of his mental list: his driver’s license.

On March 19, he got it.

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For Guy Hunter, after surviving beatings and a starvation diet, simple tasks--such as going to the grocery store--have become far more enticing than ever before. Mary Hunter, his wife, rolled her eyes as she and Guy remembered their first shopping excursion.

“I could scarcely control him,” she said, good-humoredly.

Mesmerized, Guy Hunter leaned over the ice cream case in the supermarket. Then he wandered into the fresh produce section. He steadily loaded all sorts of fruits and vegetables into his cart.

“You just want to eat everything in there,” Guy Hunter said. “Apples. I’ll eat them. Bags of broccoli--oh my. Steaks, great.”

The days of captivity have changed the way Hunter views his life, he said. From now on, he plans to treasure and get far more involved with his family. Maybe, he thinks, he took things in life for granted--something he vows to never ever do again.

“If Mary wants to go shopping, I’m not going to say, ‘Take the children and go.’ I am flat going to go with her,” Hunter said. “I couldn’t stand to go shopping. I’m the kind of guy who goes into the store to buy something, I go over and pick up a pair of shoes and pay for it and leave. Whereas, she likes to browse and browse and browse. That sort of thing drove me up the wall, but I said, ‘To heck with it. I’ll go with her and see what she likes to look at.’ ”

Even chores seem far more appealing than ever before. Mow the lawn? No problem. Set up the stereo? Easy. Load up the living-room shelves with books? With pleasure.

“I am going to putter, try to get things straightened. We’re going to grill,” Hunter said eagerly. “I am trying to concentrate on the important things--find the bills.”

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He has also resolved to get back into shape. Every morning, Hunter goes out to jog around Camp Pendleton. Mary Hunter, astride her bicycle, pedals by his side--chatting.

While held in solitary confinement, Hunter had conversations in his mind with Mary, planning and replanning what he would do when he came home, a trip they would take to Napa Valley. But, for the most part, Hunter’s first weeks back didn’t jibe with the plans he made from inside the 10-by-14-foot cell in Baghdad. For one thing, he didn’t figure on being hailed as a hero--an occurence that eats up considerable chunks of time.

“Heck, we are the ones who got caught--they nailed us,” said Hunter, shaking his head. “The guys who are the true heroes are the ground forces and the (pilots) who kept coming back night after night, pounding the Iraqis into submission--those guys have nerves of steel and a great deal of courage. They are the heroes.”

Hunter figured that, when he finally left Baghdad, he’d fly to the Marine air strip at El Toro, where his wife would pick him up. Then they would go home to Camp Pendleton for a nice steak dinner.

Instead, he spent his first week back in Bethesda, Md., being honored by President Bush, military officials and examined by doctors. When he called his eldest, 12-year-old Laura who was waiting at home, she said: “Who is this?”

Startled, Hunter replied: “Your dad.”

“Is it really? You don’t sound like my dad,” she said.

Finally back in California two weeks ago, Hunter began to settle into a more normal life. Part of that is re-establishing his relationships with his three children: Laura; William, 8; and Mary Elizabeth (Lily), 7.

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“Children,” Hunter said, “strike right for the heart.”

Hunter’s kids clearly adore him. As he sits in the living room, Lily sidles in, draping herself around his neck.

“You are a hero, you are,” Lily crowed.

William shows his father his homework. And Laura shouts that the bicycle tires need more air. Hunter soaks up their attention.

Hunter and Lt. Col. Clifford Acree were shot down Jan. 18 as they flew toward northern Kuwait. The first American prisoners of war captured, they were among the last to be released March 5.

The two younger children never really understood what made their father’s absence different this time. A Marine for 29 years, Hunter had often shipped out for six-month deployments. When Lily learned her father was in prison, Mary Hunter explained that he had committed no crime--but was being held because he was an American.

To lessen Lily’s anxieties, Mary Hunter described a prison far nicer than the one holding Guy Hunter. The prison she described was clean, had a nice back yard, and served three wholesome meals a day.

“I didn’t want her upset,” Mary Hunter explained.

Despite her own emotional roller coaster as she waited for word of her husband, Mary Hunter believed that one day, Guy Hunter--whom she teasingly calls “Mr. Hunter"-- would return.

“I felt in my heart that Guy would come back,” said Mary Hunter. “I also knew he wanted me to go on, to not fall apart.”

Before combat began, William drew pictures of aircraft carriers and jets that he sent to his father. He also mailed him a letter, saying: “I don’t want you to come home with any scars.”

But Hunter acknowledged that he has returned with scars--one across his left eyelid, ripped in the crash, and another far deeper, one that causes him to dream every night about his captivity.

At a hotel after being released, Hunter woke in the night and saw the open bedroom door, and was completely baffled. He wondered why the guards had left the cell door open. After several minutes, he remembered that--as of March 5--he was a free man.

Another night, he dreamed that he could see fighter jets soaring overhead, dropping bombs. Though he had heard the planes in Baghdad and had felt his prison cell shudder when the bombs hit, Hunter never saw the bombing--except in his dream.

Officially, Hunter doesn’t return to work at Camp Pendleton until April 19. But Hunter has already been warned by the men in his squadron that they plan to hold a Kangaroo Court for him and Acree, the commanding officer. In the mock ceremony, the two men will be chastised for misuse of government property, unauthorized absence for more than one month, and improper Marine Corps hair cuts.

There is also some talk that maybe the squadron ought to change its current call sign: Hostage. But Hunter says he has no intention of changing his own personal call sign, Great White--for his all-white mop of hair.

Hunter, who grew up one of 11 children in Moultrie, Ga., had asked his father if he could join the Marines when he was 17. An easygoing and strong-minded boy who drove a tractor at 9 and had a passion for banana pudding and fried chicken, Hunter did not see himself as a hero. And he still doesn’t.

As Hunter has walked around Oceanside and Camp Pendleton in the last two weeks, strangers who recognized his face from television and newspapers have greeted and welcomed him home. Flowers and balloons have arrived at his modest home. Scores of letters have piled in--from well-wishers all over the country. Scads of invitations have been issued: Could he attend a yellow bow-cutting ceremony at the Hotel del Coronado (where he honeymooned)? Would he be available for victory parades in Los Angeles and San Diego? Might he attend an Angels’ baseball game as an honored guest?

“It seems strange--so many days by myself and then hundreds of people pulling you in all directions. It takes some getting used to,” Hunter said. “It seems really overblown--we appreciate it, but we don’t think we are anything special.”

Guy and Mary Hunter are looking forward to the day when their celebrity glow fades. Because Mary and the kids moved to Camp Pendleton after Hunter shipped out to the Persian Gulf, the house does not yet feel like home--even though they met in Oceanside more than a decade ago, when Guy Hunter was first assigned here.

In the meantime, Hunter is distancing himself from his painful days of captivity.

“It seems like a dream,” he said. “You read a book about this sort of thing.”


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