They listened to the bombing of Baghdad from behind prison walls, and they waited, and prayed, not knowing whether they faced deliverance or death.
“The first straight day that I was in prison, I was on my knees praying, I mean 12 straight hours. Every morning was hard for me,” says Williams.
“I was happy I made it through the night without being killed. But then I was sad that I had to stay in there one more day. Don’t get me wrong, I never lost hope or faith that the Americans were coming. As long as I heard the bombs, I felt good. But I still cried, because I didn’t think I was ever going to see my little boy, or my wife, or my little girl. And that was the hardest.”
Young says he prayed that God would take the fear away from him, that it would be a swift victory, “that if I do die, my family would remember me. That they’d be honored by what I did for my country. And that people would always remember me for the type of person that I was, and of course, that I would make it through.”
They had made it through most of the war. Ironically, it was while the fighting wound down that they almost died.
The Iraqis, desperate to keep the Americans from being rescued, took all seven prisoners on one last wild ride. Williams and Young remember being transported in a van with 13 people and five guards. The two pilots rode in the back of the van while they were being moved to another location.
“While we had our hands bound behind our back, blindfolded, one of the moves, they moved us from a prison, right out in the middle of a doggone firefight,” says Williams.
“This was the scariest,” remembers Young. And the worst, adds Williams.
Many Iraqi streets at that time were crowded and chaotic. Suddenly, in front of the prisoners’ ambulance, there was an explosion and gunfire.
“We jumped a curb and pulled right out into the middle, where the Iraqis are on one side of the street and the Americans are on the other side of the street,” remembers Williams. “We’re in the crossfire, driving right down the center of it.”
“Ron and I were like, ‘Please, this is not the way to go, in an ambulance, in a traffic accident.’ We were terrified that we’d get in one of those.”
“We were doing about 110, I’m sure of it,” says Young. “We were on two wheels, and me and him are sitting on the side getting everyone to lean so that we keep all four wheels on the ground. We were going so fast around curves and stuff. I mean, truly the scariest part of the entire captivity was that ride.”
It was horrible, says Williams. “The driver and the two passengers up front were screaming out the windows for everybody to get out of the way. My biggest fear is that we would be in an accident, and the Iraqis would come investigate who was in the ambulance, and see us all blindfolded. That would been very bad.”
They were worried that if they were discovered, they would be attacked. “Kind of like Somalia,” says Young.
“You know, we would been defenseless, handcuffed,” adds Williams. “They would have just torn us apart.”
At this point, Iraqi civilians appeared to be tearing apart their own country. Chaos now reigned in the capitol. But in a small village, three hours north of Baghdad, it was quiet.
The seven Americans were bound and blindfolded and locked inside a house, helpless and under constant guard.
“I think this was the seventh place we were at. And I will say, these last three guys that we interacted with were probably the most humane,” says Williams.
The prisoners had little to do but listen, and try to figure out how far away their American rescuers might be.
“We knew the guys were on the ground because of the type of aircraft that were flying,” says Williams. “That we could hear, and we knew the guys were coming in.”
However, they didn’t know that a Marine commander in their area had gotten a tip that changed everything.
“The commander, I guess somebody [Iraqi people] had gone to him and said there’s Americans at a house being held,” says Williams. “And he acted on it. He said OK, ‘We’re going to go get them.’”
Young says he heard people yelling “Get down on the ground,” when the Marines came. “I told everyone to get on the ground and we laid down and told the guards to get on the ground, and they did.”
“The next thing, I know I’ve got a Marine standing there with a gun pointing in my face who just came through that door. It was awesome,” says Young. “I was not prepared to see another soldier like that, someone that had been through battle. These guys were hard, and they were the hollow-eyed killers that you would think they were, coming through that door. And it shocked me. It really, it shocked me.”
“To have them kick in the door and come in screaming. I just couldn’t control my emotions. I just started crying,” says Williams. “It was the most beautiful thing to see those boys come in there, as professional as they were, as they had trained. I mean, it was quick, furious. I was speechless.”
“They said they were happy to see us,” adds Young. “They said we made the war for them, the fact that they found us.”
Young and Williams emerged wearing the filthy pajamas they’d had on for weeks. Ragged but relieved, the prisoners were taped climbing into an American vehicle -- their faces a reflection of how differently each dealt with their trauma.
Young was 25 pounds lighter, and exuberant. Williams was 25 pounds lighter, and exhausted.
Back in the desert, their unit commander, Colonel Ball, saw the first sign that something big was in the works.
“I found out because the regimental commander came looking for me and as he’s running, literally running – towards me and this is a guy that outranks me. He is running towards me and I can’t tell you if it’s good or bad, but I see him coming and I’m like, ‘Oh, boy,’” says Ball. “He tells me, ‘We just got word that there are prisoners of war that we’ve just found. We don’t know who they are yet but they are prisoners of war.’ And I can tell you that I don’t think my feet touched the ground from there to his control center to where I could get on the telephone and talk to higher headquarters.”
Ball says it took them about two hours before they could receive confirmation and find out the names of the rescued prisoners of war. After that, word began to spread.
“Colonel Ball came up to me and he says, ‘I’ve got some good news for you,’” says McElhiney. “As soon as he said that, I went, ‘Yeah, baby. Yeah. I know what it is.’”
“I kind of glanced over at the TV and CNN and pictures up of the seven POWs. It wasn’t clear because the TV screen was rolling, but I just stopped what I was doing and just kind of stared at the TV,” says Polidore. “And I was like, ‘Oh, my god. Oh my god, I think we’ve got them.’”
“I remember several different people yelled. Some people clapped. All I could do was sit there and I just thought about what they had gone through,” says Stauffer. “I thought finally, thank God that this happened.”
“They loaded us up on a helicopter, which as not exactly what we wanted at this point,” says Young, laughing. “All I could think on that helicopter was, ‘I don’t want to be a POW twice in one war.’”
Their first stop was in Kuwait, for a visit with their commanders.
“When I saw the colonel come in and the commander, you could tell that they were very upset. They were relieved to see us, so happy,” says Williams. “And I couldn’t hold my tears back. I was so happy to see them because I thought I never would ever again. And I told the colonel that I’m sorry and he said, ‘Don’t worry, son. You did everything right.’”
Williams apologized because he felt like he had failed. “I didn’t come back with the rest of the company. We got caught.”
The seven Americans were unloaded to cheers at an American military base in Germany. There, they received medical treatment, counseling, and for the first time in weeks, kindness.
They landed in Fort Hood, Texas, after midnight. A few important family members were waiting.
Williams hugged his wife and asked to see her face. “I didn’t cry that time when I saw her because I had cried so much,” he says.
“But I was just beside myself to have her in my arms again. It was incredible, the feelings. And during captivity, I at some point had to stop thinking about my family because it hurt so bad. Just to see her again … I’m speechless. The feelings is overwhelming.”
Young says he first got off the plane and saw his parents waiting for him.
“My mother’s standing there, and she had made a remark about wanting to hug me for 30 minutes. So she tried. It was something that you never thought would happen again in your life. And it’s something that you value deeply after a situation like that.”
That night, they were greeted by thousands of people, and they gave their first speeches.
The next day, they met President Bush.
For Williams and Young, it had been a whirlwind journey -- from pilots, to prisoners, to war heroes.
“I think the biggest thing when we got home is not really wanting to be separated at that point,” says Young. “Probably one of the tougher things that we did was just to separate all apart.”
From each other and the other POWs, adds Williams. “We had such a fellowship with each other.”
The two former POWs have been home since Easter Sunday, but it will take more than a month of friends and family to blot out the terror of their time in captivity.
Both men say they still find themselves back in Iraq, in their dreams.
"I do a lot of running in mine, just running," says Young. "Running, hiding. People always out to get me. It’s just like that night. It’s just like trying to get away from people and they’re right there in front of you. I mean they’re so close, but yet, you’re still running. You’re holding onto that little piece of hope that you’re getting away.”
In his nightmares, Williams says he can't speak. "It’s dark. My hands are bound, and as hard as I try to yell or turn on the lights, it doesn’t happen, like I’m restricted. I assume that’s because of the captivity. It was 22 days. It was the hardest 22 days of my life.”