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From a U.S. hostage in the Colombian jungle, a marriage proposal

While his Colombian girlfriend and twin sons waited, American captive Keith
Stansell reached out. He was freed Wednesday.

By Matthew BristowContributor / July 3, 2008

A family waits: American Keith Stansell's twin sons and their Colombian mother, Patricia Medina, wait for his release.

Nathaly Londono

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Bogotá, Colombia

Patricia Medina was nearly five months pregnant when her boyfriend, former US Marine Keith Stansell, left on a reconnaissance flight over a Colombian coca-growing region.

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His plane crashed, and she's been waiting five years for him to return. But now, she has only a few more hours to wait.

Mr. Stansell was one of three Americans rescued Wednesday along with former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 Colombians who had been held captive by Colombian Marxist rebels.

"We can't believe it. We are super happy!" said Patricia upon hearing the news. Reached by phone, her sons were shouting for joy in the background.

Stansell will soon meet his 5-year-old twin boys for the first time.

Early this year, he sent Patricia a message via a released hostage: "Will you be my wife?"

Until now, Patricia was one of an estimated 2,800 Colombian families who struggle to keep their hopes, and the memories of their kidnapped relatives, alive. Mostly, they do small things, like celebrate their loved one's birthdays and send out radio messages late at night.

"The families often suffer greater psychological damage than the people who were kidnapped," says Olga Lucia Gomez, head of Pais Libre, a nonprofit group that helps families of kidnap victims. "The hostage knows how he is, where he is, and his state of health. The families don't know," she says.

But many families faithfully wait for the day of their loved one's release or scraps of news – or in Patricia's case, a marriage proposal.

On March 3, Patricia waited at Bogotá airport to meet a group of hostages released by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels at the request of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. One of those hostages was former Colombian senator Luis Eladio Perez. He had spent 2-1/2 years in the same guerrilla camps as Stansell and two other American hostages, Tom Howes and Marc Gonsalves, who were also on the plane when its engine failed.

During his years as a hostage Senator Perez got to know the Americans very well. Indeed, he was chained by the neck to Mr. Howes for nine months.

Patricia, a flight attendant for Avianca, a Colombian airline, and had just gotten back on a flight from Los Angeles at 5:30 a.m.. She hadn't slept all night, but she stayed in the airport waiting all day for the freed hostages to arrive. Perez finally arrived in the airport that afternoon, surrounded by family and well-wishers.

After a few minutes, Perez's son told him Patricia was there, too.

"Are you Patricia?" Perez said. "I've got a message for you from Keith." He handed her a rose, and said, "It's the most beautiful message a woman can receive. Keith wants to know if you will be his wife."

"It took me by surprise, and I burst into tears," says Patricia. "I hugged the rose and said, 'Of course I will.' "

Perez told her to send him the answer via the radio broadcast "because he's waiting for your answer," Perez said.

Patricia first met Stansell in the business-class section of an Avianca flight from Bogotá to Panama. Apart from Stansell and two Colombian passengers, business class was empty, and the two got talking.

"Keith is very handsome," she says. "It was love at first sight."

Hostage in Colombia

There are an estimated 2,800 people who are being held hostage in Colombia.

• 700 by the FARC, left-wing rebels

• 300 by the ELN, left-wing rebels

• 250 by right-wing paramilitaries

• 250 by common criminals

• 1,300 by unknown kidnappers

Source: Pais Libre