In mid morning, all 32 POWs were herded onto a bus for one last trip through the streets of Baghdad. The windows of the bus had been shaded to protect the prisoners. Troy Dunlap had made a sign that stated in bold letters, "USA #1." When he attempted to place it between the shade and a glass of the bus window, Major Cornum cautioned him that that might not be such a good idea. Troy removed his sign for the time being. The bus wisked them through the nearly abandoned streets to Baghdad airport. As they arrived, the prisoners noticed several buses leaving the airport carrying the first Iraqi Army prisoners to be released by the Coalition.
After a short delay, probably to clean the plane, the soldiers, sailors, and airmen were allowed to board a sleek Swiss air 727. Before leaving the bus, in a final display of defiance Dunlap removes his homemade USA #1 sign from his pocket and slid it between the shade and glass. After what seemed like an eternity, the Swissair 727 taxied down to the runway and took to the air. The prisoners were one step closer to freedom, but they were still in Iraqi airspace.
Shortly after the Swissair 727 took off, two F-15s came alongside, wings wagging. One pilot executed a victory roll from one side of the commercial jet over to the top and settled on the other side. Two British Tornados appeared alongside the 727 next. They got so close that Rhonda Cornum could see the smiling faces of the British pilots. They too put on quite a show for the returning prisoners before screaming off with afterburners blazing, leaving a trail of chaff in their path. The Eagles and Tornados escorted the prisoners' flight all the way back to Riyadh. An hour or so into the flight, the Swiss pilot announced that they had entered Saudi airspace. The news was greeted with cheers and "high-fives." For some, this was the first time in weeks that they could relax.
Being the most senior, Air Force Colonel David Eberly got on the plane intercom and tried to organize the prisoners' departure from the plane. One thing was sure, Andy McNab would not exit the plane with the rest of the prisoners. According to SAS security procedures he would leave the plane with the wounded, Mark, Sergeant Dan Stamaris, Captain William Andrews, and Major Joseph Small, out of sight of the awaiting throng of news photographers.
Muhammed "Big Mo" Mubarak, the Kuwaiti pilot shot down in the first week of the war, would be given the honor of leaving the plane first. Then, after Colonel Eberly, would come Lieutenant Colonels Acree, Bellini, and Fox; Majors Cornum and Tice; Captains Roberts, Sanborn, and Storr; Lieutenants Slade and Sweet; Chief Warrant Officer Hunter; and finally, Sergeant Troy Dunlap, as well as nine Saudis and six British prisoners.
As the plane landed, every reporter in Riyadh was waiting on the tarmac along with General Schwarzkopf and a large delegation of Coalition commanders and friends of the POWs. Each unit that had a member being released sent a special representative to escort their POW. The escorts were each close friends of the freed prisoner. Their orders were to accompany the returning captive for the next several days and just be there for support.
When the plane taxied to a stop and the door swung open, Colonel Eberly appeared. "Mo" was the first POW off the aircraft. Then the rest descendent the stairway in order of their rank. Colonel Eberly came first, the Lieutenant Colonel Acree. As Acree stepped onto the tarmac, General Schwarzkopf greeted him at the foot of the stairs. Acree stood at attention, saluted and said: "Sir, I am Lieutenant Colonel Cliff Acree, United States Marine Corps. I am reporting to you that all naval officers known to me in captivity are all present and accounted for." Schwarzkopf returned the salute and replied, "Welcome home Colonel. I'm proud of you."
One by one, General Schwarzkopf personally greeted each of the passengers of this"freedom flight" and they reached the foot of the stairs. Major Rhonda Cornum followed not far behind Colonel Acree. She exited the aircraft and with both her broken arm in slings, cautiously negotiated the stairs down to the tarmac. She two, was greeted by General Schwarzkopf. She apologized for not saluting. He welcomed her home and gingerly reached out to touch her arm. As the Major was walking away from the plane, a reporter in the crowd shouted,"How do you feel?" She turned in his direction and shouted at the top of her lungs, "Airborne!"
These were the true heroes of the Gulf War. They each had fought their own close-in battle with the enemy. They have been outnumbered and unarmed. They had fought to maintain their honor and dignity as they were savagely beaten through unending, brutal interrogations. As they stepped off the plane on to the sunlit tarmac and back into freedom, they were the true victors of Desert Storm. Their bodies had been broken, but their spirit had remained intact. They had defeated their Iraqi captors. They had maintained their dignity, their sanity, and their honor-and they were alive!
“Scars are not signs of weakness, they are signs of survival and endurance.” ― Rodney A. Winters