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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Hometowns Fear for Seized Men

Vigils: In L.A., Michigan and Texas, families and friends await word of loved ones.

April 02, 1999|NANCY TREJOS and DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The one from East Los Angeles is a former high school wrestler whose older brother is an LAPD detective.

The one from Michigan is a fun-loving, former distance runner known for his dogged toughness.

The one from Texas likes to amuse people by wiggling his ears, but he has a serious side too: He left Texas A&M University after only a year to join an elite U.S. Army unit.

The three young men, part of a peacekeeping unit stationed in Macedonia near the border with Yugoslavia, were the focal point of global attention Thursday after they became the first Americans taken captive by Yugoslav forces.

Their marked, sullen faces on news broadcasts brought both a profound relief and a bracing fear to the families and friends of Staff Sgts. Andrew Ramirez, 24, and Christopher J. Stone, 25, and Spc. Steven Gonzales, 21.

In some cases, family members were told of their disappearance by Army officials late Wednesday and spent a sleepless night wondering about their fate.

"When something like this happens," said Frank Jasso, a relative of Ramirez, "it's like a death in the family."

On Thursday, while President Clinton decried the soldiers' capture and Yugoslavia's state news agency reported that they will face a military trial, well-wishers rallied in their support. Yellow ribbons were hung on homes and at schools. Bouquets, cards and heart-felt messages were delivered to the homes of the families, where neighbors gathered, along with crowds of reporters.

In the tightknit, blue-collar East L.A. community where Ramirez grew up, three flower arrangements arrived in succession at the modest stucco home of Andrew Ramirez Sr., the soldier's father, who remained in seclusion. One woman decorated the chain-link fence with miniature American flags tethered with yellow ribbons.

Emotional relatives gathered two doors down at the home of a cousin, Virginia Hernandez, who described the youngest of the three Ramirez children as a popular young man with a "beautiful outlook." Ramirez wanted nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of his brother, LAPD Det. Steven Ramirez, who had joined the Army and who now supervises an anti-gang unit.

"He was a real all-American, sports-minded kid," Hernandez said of the young man she had watched grow up. During his last trip home on military leave four months ago, she recalled, Ramirez talked of his training as a paratrooper and his service in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he had been dispatched from a base in Germany.

Hernandez said she tried to persuade Ramirez to leave the service out of fear for his well-being.

"I told him, 'That's enough,' " she said, "and he said, 'No, I like what I'm doing.' "

Hernandez's son, John, who also recalled questioning Ramirez about his desire to continue serving in the Army, used to think it seemed unnatural that Ramirez was so committed to joining the military. Ramirez talked incessantly about the Army while attending Schurr High School in nearby Montebello, far more than he talked about girls or cars, Hernandez said.

Ramirez, a dedicated student who earned A's and Bs, was known for his big smile. The skinny youth ran track as a freshman and competed in wrestling as a sophomore, developing a mental toughness.

Under rainy skies Thursday, relatives expressed shock over his capture and fears for his safety.

"It's not a good feeling," said Bob Carcano, a cousin of Ramirez's father, who said he had one message for "Andy": "Just hang in there, buddy. We're behind you. We're all behind you. We love you. Everything will turn out OK."

Jasso spent the entire morning standing outside the house. "I think he can take care of himself," Jasso said. "We're brought up that way. We're survivors. He's always wanted to go into the service. He was aware of the danger."

Both relatives said they still supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes against Yugoslavia, whose military is carrying out operations against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo province. "I don't believe anyone should try genocide of a complete race," Jasso said.

In the tiny village of Capac, Mich., about 50 miles north of Detroit, virtually every tree and signpost was tied with yellow ribbons in support of Stone, the oldest of the three captives. Churches scheduled prayer vigils, and a sign attached to the local high school read: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the hostages."

Stone's father, James, spoke in a cracking voice and held back tears at a news conference in the National Guard Armory. He called his son a "special American and a very proud soldier." He said he is encouraged by Clinton's resolve to obtain the release of the captives.

The younger Stone grew up in the sparsely populated rural area--where most people work on farms or at small factories in nearby Port Huron, Flint or Pontiac--but hasn't lived there since he enlisted in the Army in 1991.

Nonetheless, TV pictures that made him appear to be the most badly bruised and angry of the three Americans struck a powerful chord in the town of 1,725 residents.

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