Former POW torn by Taliban trade

Melissa Rathbun-Coleman

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Former prisoner of war Melissa Rathbun-Coleman, among the first U.S. servicewomen ever held by an enemy, said she is torn by the negotiated release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdhal.

“I know it kind of goes against what the United State has always stood for, as far as not negotiating with terrorists,” Rathbun-Coleman, formerly of Newaygo, told 24 Hour News 8 in a telephone interview. “I’m grateful that he was released. I’m grateful they were able to negotiate a deal, but I’m concerned about what these five (Taliban) prisoners are going to do now that they’ve been released.”

She fears the swap — Sgt. Bergdahl in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners — could put a price tag on other American soldiers.

“I believe it could be used as a negotiating tactic now to maybe incite more captures and to try to negotiate more release of the Taliban,” she said.

She was Army Spec. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy back then, captured by the Iraqi army in an ambush in early 1991 near the Saudi border, shot through the arm, later held in a Baghdad prison.

That was during Operation Desert Storm — the U.S.-led answer to Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

“When I was captured, there were rumors that went around that I had gone AWOL (absent without leave),” she said. “They said that I was AWOL, that I had just wandered off into the middle of the desert away from my post, and they actually had me listed as AWOL until I was released.”

She said she was treated well by her Iraqi captors.

“I was highly favored by God. I was blessed so much,” Rathbun-Coleman said. “I was fed three meals a day. I was allowed to go out in the courtyard and exercise. I knew that I was going to come home; I knew that God was going to bring me home safe and OK, but the biggest fear that I had was that I would die from the allied bombings.”

The allied bombs, she said, often shook the prison.

“The only way I can describe it was a ball of fire coming from the sky and it hit so close that the whole prison shook and dust flew everywhere,” she recalled.

Her release — after 33 days — followed a cease fire and later led to a swap of prisoners.

But back then, she said, the U.S. was negotiating with Iraq, not a terrorist group.

She said she’s not sure how she would feel if she’d been traded for terrorists.

“I would be more than grateful to be coming home after five long years, but there would be that trepidation as far as, what are these guys going to do now that we’ve had them for so long? Is there going to be retaliation on their part?”

Rathbun-Coleman, now 44, stayed in the military for two years after her release. She is married with two children and living in San Antonio.

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