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Former FARC hostage tells AFSOUTH about his experiences

Keith Stansell, a contractor who was rescued after being held hostage by rebels in Colombia, steps off the ramp of a C-17 Globemaster III onto U.S. soil at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas at 11:31 p.m., July 2. The aircraft is stationed at Travis AFB, Calif., and the crews came from various bases such as Charleston AFB, S.C., and Pope AFB, N.C.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)

Keith Stansell, a contractor who was rescued after being held hostage by rebels in Colombia, steps off the ramp of a C-17 Globemaster III onto U.S. soil at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas at 11:31 p.m., July 2, 2008. Mr. Stansell spoke to Airman of 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) recently about his experiences in captivity. (U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Keith Stansell, a Northrup-Grumman employee held hostage by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia for more than 5 years, spoke to 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) Airmen about his experiences here Aug. 25. 

Mr. Stansell was flying counter-narcotic surveillance missions for the U.S. contractor in February of 2003 when the engine stalled on his aircraft and he and his crew crash-landed in the thick Colombian jungle. They were almost immediately discovered and captured by the FARC, and used as prisoner-exchange leverage by the group for more than half a decade afterward. 

"We always talk about freedom, and everything that's ever been read, sung, or written about it is true," the Marine veteran said. "You don't understand the value of it until you lose it." 

Two of his crew were executed, and he and two others were marched into the jungle. They were traded from group to group to throw off any pursuit by authorities. Conditions were absolutely horrendous. 

"During the first six months, we weren't even allowed to speak," he said. "In fact, we lost our voices. We marched 10 to 18 kilometers a day in chains, on nothing but rice and beans. If we were lucky, they would kill an animal, like a taper or monkey, and we would have meat. 

"The FARC have absolutely zero value for human life. There's no humanity, no logic. The word 'terrorist' doesn't do justice to these guys." 

Mr. Stansell described scenes of summary executions, wanton violence and remorseless cruelty. He also explained how teenagers from poor rural villages are "recruited" and brainwashed with communist dogma from a young age to continue the cycle of extortion and violence. He watched many of his captors grow from teenagers to adults during his captivity. 

In 2008, constant aerial surveillance caused the FARC to start making rash mistakes, Mr. Stansell said. The guards found cameras while moving near the border with Venezuela, and started panicking because no one had ever pursued them that deep into the jungle before. In the background, authorities had cracked the FARC communication codes. 

In July, during a daring operation in which Colombian government forces pretended to be FARC commanders, Mr. Stansell and 15 others were rescued. After the rescue, the Americans were repatriated. 

"I remembered during our captivity, I had said, 'I would kill for a slice of pepperoni pizza and chocolate chip cookies,'" he said. "We were on a C-17 flying home, and this young captain asked us how we were doing, so I told her the story. It turns out the crew had five large pepperoni pizzas aboard the aircraft. Afterward, she brought us chocolate chip cookies that she had baked that morning." 

Mr. Stansell concluded his presentation with thanks to 12th AF (AFSOUTH) Airmen who contributed to his successful rescue. 

"Please don't feel sorry for me," he said. "It's a pleasure to thank folks like you for getting guys like me out. Thanks for your persistence, hard work and dedication. I have been overwhelmed by the sheer number of people involved in our rescue over the years. 

"Don't ever take for granted the freedom we have in this country. I hope each and every one of you is proud of that uniform. I can't tell you, as a person who lost his freedom, what that uniform means to me."

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