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WAR WITH IRAQ / THE HOME FRONT

Ex-POW Advises Families to Have Confidence in Their Loved Ones

Joseph Small III says he is haunted by his imprisonment and torture. But he still has faith in the military and its training.

March 25, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The ground offensive in the 1991 Persian Gulf War was in its second day when Joseph Small III piloted his OV-10 Bronco toward Kuwait City. The low-flying plane used to spot targets was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. He ejected and was captured. Within days, the war ended and, after being beaten and tortured, Small was released.

"I'll be honest, there's not a day in the past 12 years when I haven't given some thought to the experience," he said Monday from his home in Racine, Wis. "It never goes away. I've tried to put it in its proper perspective and move on, but it's never really too far from the surface."

Because of the grim experiences of Small and 22 other POWs in 1991 -- officials say all were beaten and one of the women was raped -- the Pentagon is especially concerned about the fate of Americans now believed to be held in Iraq, including two pilots confirmed as POWs on Monday.

As the images of the American captives flashed across television screens, U.S. officials repeatedly warned Iraq to abide by the Geneva Convention that prohibits mistreatment or humiliation of prisoners.

"It's a concern," said Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, spokesman for the Defense Department. "It's a brutal regime, and their past experience would make us concerned. That's why we have said repeatedly and publicly that we expect Iraq to treat them humanely."

The Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Douri, said Sunday that his country would not mistreat troops captured in the conflict.

In its annual report, reflecting events in 2001, Amnesty International said political prisoners in Iraq were subjected to "systematic torture." Common methods included "electric shocks or cigarette burns to various parts of the body, pulling out of fingernails, rape, long periods of suspension by the limbs, from either a rotating fan in the ceiling or from a horizontal pole, beating with cables," the Amnesty report said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke opened Monday's news briefing by calling the taping of the POWs a violation of the Geneva Convention and again warning Iraqis not to harm the prisoners.

"Contrast this abuse of the coalition prisoners to how well we are treating the Iraqi soldiers who are our prisoners of war," she said. "Right now, more than 50 Iraqis -- soldiers and civilians alike -- are aboard U.S. naval vessels receiving medical care and treatment. We are treating all of the POWs in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, with dignity and respect, and they will soon have access to the Red Cross."

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday that it has asked for access to the American POWs -- and to the 3,000 Iraqi POWs reportedly in U.S. hands, most taken when they surrendered.

Amanda Williamson, a Washington-based spokeswoman for the Red Cross, said the organization, which wins access by pledging not to disclose sensitive information, is in touch with both the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

"We don't read anything into the fact that we don't get immediate access," she said. "We hope it will be as soon as possible."

Americans like Small who survived Iraqi prison say that remembering little things from home -- like high school football games and the names of third-grade classmates -- can preserve the spirit.

"If they want to they can break your body," Small said. "The idea is to keep your mind and spirit strong."

As soon as Small landed, he was surrounded by a dozen Iraqis. They tied him up, blindfolded him and took him into Kuwait City.

"I was terrified," he said. "I actually look at the first few days in particular, and my whole nine days in captivity, as if I was in shock."

Several people beat him at once. Some concentrated on trying to break his eardrums, he said. At one point, they "stood me up and brought me to a different room. I was still not sure what was going to happen, and all of a sudden they started whipping me with a wide belt or piece of fire hose. I still had bruises on my back and backside and legs after my release."

Small, now a commercial pilot, said his captors asked a lot of questions about his aircraft and that "all you can do is try to resist as best you can or make up a story." At times he remembers thinking, "Am I willing to die for this stupid piece of information they can get off of CNN?"

After he was transported to Baghdad, an interrogator came in to tell him Iraq's history, to justify Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. "My thought was, the more he talks, the less I have to, so I just let him talk."

Then the father of three children, Small says he was bolstered by POW training in the post-Vietnam era Air Force -- and by the reading he did of Vietnam veterans' descriptions of their own captivity.

His oldest son is now a captain in the Air Force. If his son is deployed, Small, now 51, said his concerns are those of any parent.

"He's got a good head on his shoulders, and he's been trained to do his job," he said. "We have the best-trained, best-equipped and best-led force the U.S. has ever fielded in a conflict, and the cause is right, to liberate the regular people of Iraq and make the world safer."

As for advice to families who may now be worried about how relatives are handling the imprisonment, Small said: "Have confidence in your loved ones. They are doing their duty to the best of their ability."

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