Eventually, though, the POWs came home, put the pieces of their lives back together - and largely remained out of the public eye. But today, a different battle is being fought by some of those American POWs, all these years after they returned. Correspondent Mike Wallace reports.
It was back in 1991 that the POWs came home from Iraq to a hero's welcome and were greeted by the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, and then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
"Your country is opening its arms to greet you," said Cheney.
Many of the POWs had suffered wounds both physical and psychological. Some of them suffer to this day, more than a decade after they were captured and appeared on Iraqi TV.
"They had broken my nose many times. And I was just getting used," says Col. Cliff Acree. "You just, kind of, get used to it."
Acree was shot down during the second day of the war. He said his interrogations always began the same way: "They would have these six or eight people just beat you for 10, 15, 20 minutes. Just no questions asked, bring you into the room, and beat you with fists, feet, clubs, whatever."
"Hearing Cliff talk about it, we never really talked like this before, in such detail," says Dale Storr, now in the National Guard, who was shot down by Iraqi ground fire. "But it brings back memories. It's almost like I'm back in my cell again."
Jeff Tice, now retired from the military, was captured after his F-16 was hit by a surface-to-air missile. He was tortured with a device he calls "the Talkman."
"They wrapped a wire around one ear, one underneath my chin, wrapped it around another ear and hooked it up to some electrical device. Asked a question. I wasn't interested in answering," recalls Tice.
"They would turn on the juice. And what that does is it, it creates a ball of lightning in your mind or in your head. Drives all your muscles simultaneously together and it drives your jaw and everything together. And, of course, I'm chained to a chair. I can't move freely. So everything is jerking into a little ball. And your teeth are being forced together with such force. I'm breaking pieces and parts off."
Tice's jaw was dislocated so many times that he says he was lucky to be able to put it back into place.
Jeff Fox, also retired from the military, was shot down over southern Iraq. "Same type of experience where they would beat you and blindfold you, handcuff you, drag you around," he says.
Some of the POWs endured mock executions, threatened castration, were urinated on, and had to survive on a starvation diet.
The torturers fractured Acree's skull. "After 16 years in the Marine Corps, you develop a certain hardness. That hardness really helped me in captivity. But the people that treated us so terribly, right early on, made me so angry that it only stiffened my resolve," he says.
"It only made me resist more. Because, in the back of my mind, I just know, it is so, what they were doing was so completely out, out of any Geneva Accord."
A 1996 U.S. law allows for torture victims to sue a terrorist state in a U.S. Federal Court. So, in the spring of 2002, these four, along with 13 others, filed a lawsuit against Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
"What's really important here is that this lawsuit is a step in the right direction, towards preventing this kind of treatment," says Storr. "What did we do after North Korea? Nothing. What did we do after Vietnam? Nothing. If that had been in place 20, 30 years ago, would their treatment have improved? Maybe. We don't know. Do we continue to do nothing? No. That's not gonna help anybody."
The case wound up in a federal district court, and this past July, the judge decided in favor of the POWs.
In his decision, Judge Richard Roberts said, "POWs are uniquely disadvantaged and deterring torture of POWs should be of the highest priority. Only a very sizable award would be likely to deter the torture of American POWs ... in the future."
And, he granted the POWs a hefty award: $653 million in compensatory damages and $306 million in punitive damages.
That is over $900 million for the POWs and their immediate families, according to John Norton Moore, a former State Department officer, and one of the attorneys for the POWs.
"If what we do is to offer the tortured American POWs settlements that are the equivalent of the price of a used car, we're simply going to perpetuate this torture of POWs over and over. And say the price of torturing American POWs is virtually nothing," says Moore.
How are they going to collect the money after they get the judgment? Where is it going to come from?
"Initially, when we filed this action, there was a large block of seized assets of Iraq, $1.7 billion, that would more than compensate any possible judgment that we had imagined in this case," says Moore.
But when the second war in Iraq was launched, just last March, those frozen Iraqi assets were confiscated by President Bush and transferred to the U.S. Treasury Department. When the POWs won their case, they argued that U.S. law entitled them to some of that money. So the POWs decided to file a second lawsuit, this one against the secretary of the treasury, in order to collect the money that federal judge had awarded them.
That's when the U.S. Justice Department stepped in, and argued that once the president had confiscated those frozen Iraqi assets, they were no longer assets of Iraq. And that money, said the president, was needed to assist the Iraqi people and to rebuild Iraq. The government did acknowledge that the president had the authority to use that money to pay the POWs but that he did not choose to do so.
But Jeff Fox doesn't believe the president would deprive them of the money a federal judge had awarded them: "I personally do not believe that the president of the United States would, given the choice between money back to Iraq or to help us, would choose Iraq. I would think that his staff probably presented to him a case in which it was pretty clear. 'Let's give the money back to Iraq,' that probably did not contain us. I do not think that our commander-in-chief would make that type of decision."
Nevertheless, it was done, the president says, to help rehabilitate Iraq.
"I support that reconstruction. Take the money, give it to Iraq. But give us a process to settle these claims," says Tice. "We made an offer that was completely ignored by the Justice Department."
Molly Poag, a lawyer for the POWs, explained the offer: "Our clients came forward and said, 'Please, use the money now, as long as you, the U.S. Government, agree to replenish this fund later from Iraqi funds.' Because Iraq has the second largest oil reserves in the world, in the future there will be funds. And we need not shut out the POWs."
Would the POWs accept less money? Yes, Poag says.
Not only would they take less, but, if they were to get any money at all, the POWs had set up a foundation to help future POWs, and had committed a chunk of the award to that foundation. But, again, they were blocked from getting any money. Tice couldn't believe the Congress would permit that.
"And I said, 'Well, I bet they don't even know what's going on.' So, I did like every American citizen should do. I picked up the phone and I called my representatives," says Tice.
He called Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and told him his story. "He was appalled at my treatment, not only at the hands of the Iraqis but at the hands of the legal system," says Tice.
"These 17 people deserve a phone call from the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department," says Sen. Reid. "It's not as if you have a bunch of derelicts out there trying to make a buck. They, these people, have been injured physically and emotionally."
But the story does not end there. While the POWs were shut out from getting the money they were awarded, they still have their original judgment, which holds Saddam and Iraq responsible and liable for their torture. But now, the Justice Department is trying to have that judgment thrown out.
"They wanna extinguish the case. I don't know why they would want to just wipe this off the books and say it never happened," says Storr. "Let's just sweep it under the carpet and pretend it never happened."
"I hope George Bush, the President of the United States, doesn't know about this," says Reid. "Because if he knows about it, if he knows about it, it's a pox on his house, his White House. This is wrong."
60 Minutes wanted to ask the administration about all this, but Vice President Dick Cheney declined. His press aide told us he was "too busy" to talk to us. We also asked to speak with Attorney General John Ashcroft, who also declined as did Secretary of State Colin Powell.
As for President Bush, in a recent press briefing, his spokesman said that while no amount of money can compensate the POWs, "it was determined earlier this year by Congress and the Administration that those assets were no longer assets of Iraq, but they were resources required for the urgent national security needs of rebuilding Iraq."
"When it comes to our president, our commander-in-chief, he has our undying support and loyalty. There's no question, no doubt in my mind," says Acree. "Here's what the lawsuit is about. We want to deter, in any way that we can, or lessen the severity of future American POWs, and there will be more, we want to lessen the severity of their captivity in any way that we can. If we don't do that, who will?"