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Family reacts to release of Marines captured in Iraq (1991)
More than a month of anguished waiting ended Tuesday when the family of Capt. Craig Berryman, the Yuma-based Marine pilot listed as missing in action, learned that he had been released by his Iraqi captors.
Berryman, 28, a Harrier pilot assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station before being deployed to the Persian Gulf, was turned over to the International Red Cross in Baghdad.
"It has been 36 days to be exact, 36 long days," Berryman's wife, Leigh, said Tuesday night in a brief news conference at MCAS. "I'm just thankful he's alive and out of their hands."
Berryman, flying a Harrier AV-8B attack aircraft, was listed as missing after failing to return from a bombing mission over Kuwait on Jan. 28 (1991).
Released with Berryman was Chief Warrant Officer Guy Hunter, a prisoner of war who was assigned to MCAS in the early 1980s.
Hunter, who later transferred to Camp Pendleton, was sitting in the back seat of an OV-10 Bronco aircraft that was shot down in the first week of hostilities. He was one of the POWs whose bruised faces appeared on Iraqi television.
A Yuma friend of Hunter's, Sharon Smith, said she was "thrilled" this morning to hear of the 46-year-old Marine's release.
"I've been worried about him," she said. "You worry more than normal when it's someone you know. But I've been concerned about all of them (the troops in the Persian Gulf). I've been a Marine wife for 13 years and you learn to care about them all."
Until Tuesday, Mrs. Berryman was uncertain if her husband was alive or dead. Then at 11 a.m. she said, Marine officials notified her that he had been freed.
"You're so happy you can't describe it, and then you think how lucky you are," she said, trying to recount the feeling of a huge burden being lifted from her shoulders.
Meanwhile, several states away in Cleveland, Okla., Berryman's mother Ester, received a phone call of her own from Marine officials.
"They said they wanted to come out and that they had some good news."
She knew instantly what that news was, she said.
This morning, Berryman's family was still waiting to hear details about his capture.
Berryman's mother denied reports that indicated her son's aircraft was seen plummeting to the ground and exploding.
"He went on a bombing raid and did not come back, and that's all we know," she said.
The family also had no word this morning about whether the pilot, assigned to the VMA-311 Harrier squadron, had been injured.
Leigh Berryman, 25, credited "the power of prayer" with her husband's release. But something more was working in his favor, she said.
"That's the kind of guy he is. When I think about a Marine, I see my husband. He's got that determination and drive that got him out alive."
She said her husband, an Oklahoma native, was assigned to MCAS 2-1/2 years ago.
Berryman grew up in Cleveland, a town of about 3,700, attended the University of Oklahoma on a Navy ROTC scholarship, graduated in 1984 and entered the Marine Corps, his mother said.
"Flying, evidently, was a lifelong dream," Esther Berryman said.
In the small Oklahoma town, the news of Berryman's release sparked an impromptu parade, dancing in households and lots of tears, The Associated Press reported.
At Cleveland High School, where Berryman graduated in 1980, school officials made an announcement on the intercom as soon as they got word, the AP said.
"They are thrilled to death," said Willa Gowdy, a secretary in the principal's office. "Everybody is elated and thanking the Lord that Craig is OK."
About 250 students from Westside Elementary School, where Berryman's mother is a third-grade teacher, made signs and carried small U.S. flags as they marched to the Berryman's house.
Jane Hammontree, a friend of the Berrymans said the students didn't exactly sneak up on them.
"I don't think I've heard them so loud," she said. "It was a total roar the whole time. They were all waving flags and shouting 'U-S-A' and 'Captain Berryman.' "
In Cleveland, "everyone knows everyone." Berryman's mother told The Yuma Daily Sun. The town has gotten solidly behind the war effort, she said, and is likely to give him a rousing welcome home when he pays a visit.
In Yuma, Berryman's wife said she wants to throw a party not just for her husband but for everyone who went to the gulf with him. "They're just as much a part of this as he is."
But she told Yuma news media that her joy is somewhat tempered by the realization that other American service personnel remain unaccounted for.
"My heart goes out to the families," she said, adding that she knows exactly how they feel.