Former hostages at West Point: an All-American 'welcome home'

Fourth of July-like celebrations exploded with fanfare, humble thanks, tears, and cries of "welcome home" as the 52 former US hostages in Iran motorcaded to this Hudson River landmark.

While all the traditional trappings of the holiday were present, it was in many ways a more solemn, soul-searching time for the thousands of well-wishers who lined the winding country roads leading to the US Military Academy here. Said Joyce Evans, a community worker in the village of Highland Falls adjacent to the front gate of the academy: "This is certainly something I needed. Something we all needed.It is a chance for a rebirth. We're all being held hostage by something or other in our lives."

Francis Fahey, a resident of West Haversham, N.Y., said: "It's about time we showed a little unity in this country, as we are now -- and it's a long time coming."

After 444 days in captivity in Iran, the 52 Americans landed at Stewart International Airport just before 3 p.m. Jan. 25, touching off a floodtide of joy that reverberated around the nation.

In the shadow of the sun-flecked mountains they embraced their families and started the first leg of their new lives back on American soil.

For the former hostages it was a time that mingled joy with tears and laughter with somber thanksgiving.

When the former hostages and their families left the airfield, they traveled along the mountain roads dotted by towns with typical American names like New Windsor, Cornwall, and Highland Falls. On Temple Hill Road in New Windsor yellow ribbons and bows blazed from tree trunks, stop signs, branches, parked car aerials -- seemingly everywhere. Along both sides of a half-mile stretch of this road 60 American flags greeted the returning Americans, with eight of them at half-mast in memory of the eight US servicemen killed in last April's unsuccessful hostage rescue effort.

As the returnees and their families entered tradition-crowned West Point they were greeted with a cornucopia of welcoming signs and ribbons. They went to the 172-room tudor- style Thayer Hotel perched on the campus high above the ice-scattered Hudson River. Above the registration desk hung a replica of a Revolutionary War flag, again in yellow, with its snake and the words, "Don't tread on me," emblazened in bold black. Upstairs, the rooms and suites the former hostages are occupying afford majestic views of the surrounding mountains.

The academy has had returning heroes and VIPs before, but few here say they have ever seen any celebration that has been more joyful and unifying.Gen. Douglas MacArthur was in charge of the academy following World War I; it was here it was that actor Gregory Peck came to film scenes from the movie "MacArthur." Five-star Gen. Omar N. Bradley never misses the opportunity to catch a football game at the "Point" and Bob Hope reviewed the cadets here in 1970.

State Department officials say the academy is uniquely suited, because of its tradition, beauty, and privacy, for the returning Americans. The entire military "city" can be sealed off at a moment's notice.

After an All-American dinner Sunday night that was expected to include turkey , lobster, and applie pie and ice cream, the returnees and their families were to be invited to attend a thanksgiving service in the academy chapel on Monday morning. Officials stress that the returnees' activities will be done on a strictly voluntary basis.

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