Former Hostages to Receive Defense of Freedom Medal
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 9, 2009 Three U.S. defense contractors held captive for more than five years by Colombian narcoterrorists will receive the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart award this week at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami.
Southcom Commander Navy Adm. James Stavridis will present the Defense of Freedom Medal to Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes during the March 12 ceremonies. All three were injured during 1,967 days of captivity in the jungles of Colombia at the hands of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as the FARC.
The Defense Department established the Defense of Freedom Medal following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to honor Defense Department employees and defense contractors injured or killed while supporting department activities. To date, 37 people have received the award.
Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes were crewmembers taking part in a routine mission to detect cocaine crops over southern Colombia on Feb. 13, 2003, when an in-flight emergency forced the pilot to crash-land the aircraft they were riding in. FARC members stormed the site and murdered pilot Thomas Janis, a U.S. citizen, and Colombian Army Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz before taking the three other Americans captive.
In a recently published book, Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes chronicle the challenges of their captivity, during which they were detained in jungle cages and forced on marches in chains.
Their imprisonment came to a dramatic end July 2, 2008, when Colombian military agents posing as humanitarian workers fooled the captors into releasing them. The mission, conducted without a single shot being fired, also freed a dozen other hostages.
An Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft transported Gonsalves, Stansell and Howes later that day to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. They were transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center at neighboring Fort Sam Houston, where they underwent a medical evaluation, were reunited with their families, and received assistance to help them smoothly transition back into their lives as free U.S. citizens.
In an Independence Day message issued two days after their release, the three expressed thanks to the U.S. and Colombian governments for not abandoning them during their captivity.
“We want to offer our heartfelt thanks to the government and the armed forces of Colombia,” they wrote. “The operation they conducted to rescue us was one for the history books – something we will never forget for the rest of our lives.”
They also praised the “tireless efforts” of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and the care they received at Brooke Army Medical Center.
“The personal and professional concern they have taken in our well-being is deeply touching, and the reintegration process they are conducting on our behalf is worthwhile and important,” they wrote. “We are all obviously eager to return home, but first we want to complete this entire process so we can return to our lives in the best physical and emotional shape possible.”