Marine shares story of capture in Iraq with school children (1991)
Originally published in The Sun in May, 1991
Marine Capt. Craig Berryman, held the attention of a crowd of Yuma school kids Thursday as he recalled being shot out of the sky by an Iraqi missile and then spending more than a month in brutal confinement.
Berryman, dressed in uniform, spoke to about 500 students of Gila Vista Junior High School during a yellow-ribbon visit that moved the youngsters to give the aviator several standing ovations.
Listening to Berryman recount his ordeal, a student asked the 28-year-old Harrier-jet pilot if he would be willing to do it all over again.
"If I had to go back, I would. That's my job. That's what the Marine Corps pays me for," he said, prompting thunderous response.
After finishing his half-hour talk in the school gymnasium, Berryman was presented with a large yellow ribbon by Carra Koopmans, a Gila Vista home-economics teacher and a friend of Berryman and his wife, Leigh.
Then dozens of students rose from their bleacher seats and swarmed around him to meet him, inspect his medals and collect his autograph.
The seventh- and eighth-graders listened intently as the pilot stood at the baseline of the basketball court with microphone in hand, recalling the events leading up to his deployment and eventual captivity.
A member of Marine Attack Squadron 311 at the Marine Corps Air Station, Berryman told listeners about his first mission in the conflict, a successful air attack against an Iraqi artillery piece.
His and several other Harriers dropped bombs on the big gun and then strafed it with cannon fire on a second pass.
"It was interesting to see the rounds walk their way up to the target," exploding as they approached, he said. "That was my introduction to combat."
Ten days later, on Jan. 28, he was to learn about captivity.
He and another pilot were attacking a convoy of Iraqi military vehicles traveling along the Kuwaiti coast toward the front lines, Berryman said.
"My wingman saw a flash, which happened to be a (surface-to-air) missile being launched. The first thing I know is I feel a thump on the bottom of the aircraft."
Describing how his plane fell end over end, Berryman said, "I can tell you that was better than any carnival ride you'd ever get."
As his parachute lowered him to the ground, Iraqi troops fired on him.
"Fortunately, they were bad shots and I'm here today."
Taken prisoner soon after landing, he was subjected to physical and psychological torture and held in cramped, unsanitary cells, Berryman said.
The students grimaced aloud when he told them what he was fed in captivity.
Each day, the Iraqi guards cooked themselves a pot of lamb stew, Berryman said. Eating as much as they wanted, the guards then refilled the pot with water, making a broth.
A bowl of the watery soup and bread was the only meal prisoners had each day, Berryman said.
Awakening one morning, the pilot found a large cockroach gnawing a sizable chunk out of a piece of bread he was saving for himself.
"I immediately smashed him." Anticipating a question, Berryman quickly added, "No, I didn't eat him."
As allied ground forces neared victory, the captors sought to hide their mistreatment of the prisoners by increasing their meals to three per day and stopping the bruising torture sessions. Berryman said.
On March 5, Berryman and other prisoners boarded a bus that took them to International Red Cross offices in downtown Baghdad.
"We were free men again," he said, prompting another round of applause.
Berryman paid his visit to Gila Vista a week before summer break. Thanking the youngsters for their support of the troops, he parted with some advice.
"Study hard, enjoy the summer and hit the books again next fall."