Freed POW Gets a Hero’s Welcome
Stepping into the arms of beaming relatives and the glare of the news media, Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez returned home Friday to Los Angeles and a hero’s welcome after 32 days of captivity in Yugoslavia.
The onetime East Los Angeles resident, dressed casually in a striped blue jogging suit, smiled, joked and thanked his hometown for an outpouring of support during a news conference broadcast live from Los Angeles International airport.
“I don’t think [Los Angeles] ever looked so beautiful. . . . I do love it,” the 24-year-old said as his mother stood at his side.
“I really didn’t think all of this was going on,” he said. “It’s all unbelievable.”
Ramirez, slowly chewing gum, appeared relaxed and tired as he deftly fielded reporters’ questions with straight and simple answers.
“I don’t feel like a hero,” he said when asked about his sudden international fame. “A lot of people say I am. They think I am, but I really don’t.”
The ordeal had given him “a little more faith in a lot of stuff and a lot of people,” he said. “I appreciate life more.”
Thrust into the spotlight, he displayed an easy, unpretentious wit. When Latino reporters asked him to say something in Spanish, Ramirez replied: “I really don’t speak that much Spanish. I don’t want to embarrass myself.” Pressed to say something, he said: “Gracias.”
Asked what he would do when he awakes this morning, he said, “Brush my teeth.” He also said he hoped to get some exercise “running away from you folks here.”
Ramirez declined to discuss details of his capture, saying that the matters are sensitive and that he and the other two released prisoners would tell their stories together at a later time. But he did recall feeling “pure joy” when he realized that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had secured his release.
Ramirez’s mother spoke briefly, saying her son’s return would make for a “happy Mother’s Day.”
“This is the best gift I’ve ever gotten,” Vivian Ramirez said.
Among the enthusiastic onlookers was a woman wearing a T-shirt that read, “Free at Last.” Another woman carried a sign that read, “We Love You, Andy.”
The news conference was held in the United Airlines terminal at LAX. When it was over, Ramirez and his mother returned to the jet way leading to the plane, then used a private exit that took them down to the tarmac, where a van was waiting to take them home.
Elated friends rejoiced at word that Ramirez was coming home.
Ramirez and his mother reached her home in Baldwin Park about 45 minutes later, where they were greeted by a crush of media and a crowd shouting, “An-dy! An-dy!” Ramirez waved to the crowd before going inside.
“I feel really good,” he said.
“We’re going to have one great, big party,” said Pablo Cortes, Vivian Ramirez’s boyfriend. “It’s going to be a 30-day one.”
In East Los Angeles, excited neighbors leaned over fences, swapping news of the soldier’s return.
“Ay, que bueno! Que bueno!” cried Ofelia Ramos, 39, who lives down the street from the home where Ramirez grew up. Her eyes filled with tears as she spoke. “I give thanks to God that they all came back well. I don’t know how to express the happiness we feel.”
Ramirez, a quiet young man who likes to hang out with his dogs and play baseball in the park, is returning to his old barrio as a world-famous war hero.
The plight of Ramirez and his two fellow soldiers, Army Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone of Smith’s Creek, Mich., and Army Spc. Steven Gonzales of Huntsville, Texas--captured by Yugoslav forces March 31--was broadcast around the world. They were beaten by their captors, held in isolation in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, and released Sunday after a delegation led by Jackson secured their freedom.
A few days ago, the soldiers flew to Germany, where they received medals and met President Clinton.
Neighbors in East Los Angeles rallied in support of Ramirez during his monthlong captivity, hanging flags and signs that read, “Bring Andy Home,” stringing yellow ribbons along fences and trees, and plastering his picture on buttons and T-shirts.
Many said they feared the worst during the month he was held.
“There were moments when I didn’t know if he would come home,” said neighbor Claudia Barrera, 29. “But we always kept up hope. Now they’ll probably change the name of the street in his honor. We’ll welcome him as a hero.”
Residents plan to throw a block party for him next week, and a large community parade is scheduled for May 23 in East Los Angeles.
Ramos, who lives two houses down from Ramirez’s childhood home, plans to tack large, white sheets in front of her house that read, “Andy, your home welcomes you with open arms,” for well-wishers to sign.
Since his capture, Ramirez has been a topic of daily conversation. Every night, Ramos and other neighbors prayed for his safe return.
“We all felt the sadness that his family was feeling,” she said. “His neighbors are his family.”
Silvia Silva, who attended Schurr High School in Montebello with Ramirez, hung an American flag in front of her house in support.
“Welcome Home Andy,” proclaimed a sign at Eastmont Elementary School, which Ramirez had attended. The staff and students have rallied around his mother, a media specialist there.
“It’s been a jubilant week,” Principal Thomas Donfrio said. “Throughout this whole ordeal, we’ve been sharing her emotions. It’s the talk of the school today.”
Vivian Ramirez called Thursday from Germany, Donfrio said, and told him that her son wanted to visit the school and share the medals he received with the students. She said she would be back at work Monday, but, “I told her I don’t want to see you until May 17, if not longer,” Donfrio said, laughing.
In Baldwin Park, laughing and lighthearted friends and relatives arrived throughout the day to decorate Vivian Ramirez’s home with balloons. They put up a large U.S. flag and banners with a map of the United States that read: “Welcome Home. We’re Proud of You.”
Louis Vela, Ramirez’s brother-in-law, left work early to decorate the house, and busied himself tying yellow balloons around the yard.
Strangers arrived at the Ramirez home in Baldwin Park throughout the day. An emotional Lisa Lucero, who lives in Duarte, brought her 6-year-old daughter, Sunny, and 4-year-old son, Perry, to see Ramirez’s house and tell them his story.
“It’s a happy Mother’s Day for Vivian,” she said, bursting into tears.
Times staff writers Nancy Trejos and Caitlin Liu contributed to this report.
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