Reintegration for freed hostages

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Years of preparation by US Army South, Brooke Army Medical Center, Northrop Grumman Corp. and family members finally came to fruition the night three American civilian contractors set foot in San Antonio.

Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, who were held captive for five and half years in a Colombian jungle, were escorted to Brooke Army Medical Center to begin their recovery through a process known as reintegration.

“The purpose [of reintegration] is to provide a transition back to normal life after the strains of captivity,” Army Maj. Gen. Keith Huber, commander of US Army South, said. “US Army South is honored to be the Department of Defense’s designated agent on behalf of the US Southern Command to conduct this process — a process that we have trained, that we have rehearsed, and prepared to perform.”

Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell worked as government contractors for Northrop Grumman, and while conducting a counternarcotics mission over a southern Colombian jungle in February 2003, their drug surveillance aircraft crashed. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a guerrilla group known by its Spanish acronym FARC, captured the crew, killing two and taking the three contractors hostage.

The three Americans, Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 11 Colombian national police and military members also held hostage by the FARC were flown to safety after being rescued in a Colombian military operation.

In a written public message recently issued by the three contractors, they specifically thanked “General Huber of United States Army South, General (James) Gilman of the Brooke Army Medical Center, Colonel (Wendy) Martinson of Garrison Fort Sam Houston and their staffs for the warm hospitality they’ve provided us and our families.”

The contractors went on to affirm that the reintegration process that Army South and BAMC are conducting on their behalf is “worthwhile and important.”

Reintegration has been around since the Vietnam War era and is designed to help returnees resume normal, professional, family and community activities with minimal physical and emotional complications. At BAMC, the former hostages were treated in much the same way as returned prisoners of war.

The process is broken down into three phases. Phase 1, “Initial Recovery,” begins when personnel are retuned to US control and individuals are given a medical examination and a psychological assessment.

Phase 2, “Transition Location,” took place at BAMC, where the hostages received a more thorough medical examination. This phase of the process also involves formal debriefings and psychological decompression, depending on particular circumstances.

A Yellow Ribbon Ceremony in BAMC’s auditorium marked the beginning of Phase 3, “Home Base,” the last step of the reintegration process. During this step, the returnees meet with their families and address significant closure issues that may have arisen from their captivity.

“In the process of reintegration, our job is to try to facilitate that transition back to their previous situation in terms of family, work, etc.,” Army Col. Carl Dickens, a BAMC psychologist, said. “The way we go about doing that is by helping them gradually reestablish some predictability and control over their experience. We help them identify some potential challenges that they may encounter as they make that transition, and then finally give them some action plans that they can use to help them as they go through that transition process.”

July 7 was the first time the returnees spoke publicly since their rescue. This occasion marked the returnees’ success in the reintegration process and provided a way to help them prepare for an “attempt at a normal life,” Huber said.

The three returnees, along with their families, entered the auditorium to cheers and a standing ovation from Army officials, well-wishers, soldiers and members of the media. Howes, the first contractor to speak, compared his experience to falling off the edge of the Earth. He went on to thank Northrop Grumman for taking “extraordin­ary” care of his family while he was away.

“I thank my companions who helped me cope with difficult conditions during these years, … the team of caring professionals at Brooke Army Medical Center for guiding us through the reintegration process, and my heartfelt thanks to all those people,” Howes said. “We are doing well, but we can’t forget those we left behind in captivity.”

Gonsalves was the next to speak. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak out to the world,” he said. “There was a time that when I slept, that I would dream that I was free; that time was only a few days ago. It feels so good to be free, to be here now, with all of you.

“To the American people,” he continued, “thank you for remembering us there in the jungle, and I want to ask you to never forget that there are others still there.”

When it was his turn to speak, Stansell walked up on stage carrying his twin five-year-old sons, who were born while he was in captivity.

“It is my privilege to stand here before you with my family,” he said. “My family, whose love and support sustained me through my most difficult ordeal of my life. They are the reason I am alive and standing with all of you today; their enthusiasm, dedication and unwavering love kept me alive.”

All three contractors thanked the Colombian government for their dramatic rescue, Northrop Grumman for taking care of their families while they were held in captivity, and Fort Sam Houston and BAMC for the help in their transition to freedom.

“Although their time in captivity has been extremely difficult and at times traumatic, they have in general fared very well,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Jackie Hayes, a BAMC physician. “They’ve shown themselves to be strong and adaptive.”

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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