"I can't think of a happier day in my life since the day he was born."
With these joy-filled words, Ronald Young Sr. greeted the Palm Sunday news that his son had been rescued from captivity in Iraq. Army Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young Jr. had been an Apache helicopter pilot, shot down and taken prisoner early in the war. Now, together with six other American POWs, he was boarding another helicopter north of Baghdad, headed to Kuwait and to freedom.
"He looks thin, but he looks good," said his mother, Kaye Young, as she watched the photos being broadcast from half a world away. "I always thought he was coming home," she said. "I had this peace about me."
The conditions under which CWO Young and the others were held will be revealed in debriefings in the days ahead. But the circumstances surrounding their rescue say much about how the late days of the fighting are unfolding, particularly the predicted battle for Saddam Hussein's ancestral hometown of Tikrit.
The defending troops just south of there (where the Americans were rescued) seem to have melted away. They weren't expecting US forces to be there so soon, and their commanders abandoned them, leaving the POWs in the hands of a local policeman who approached a US Marine Corps unit heading north from Baghdad.
How the American POWs were found and turned over to American forces follows a recent pattern of Iraqis cooperating with the US-led coalition now that the regime has lost virtually all control of the country. They're coming forward to point out Baath Party members, remnants of the Fedayeen Saddam fighters, and those foreigners who've come to Iraq to fight for Saddam Hussein.
"We're having that happen a lot," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Sunday. "They're telling us where they are, and we're able to find them."
Some experts also see significance in the orderly way in which the POWs were handed over and initial word that they apparently were not mistreated.
"What is good news is that the regular military appears to have behaved with some discipline and even honor," says military analyst Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute. "This suggests there may be a foundation there for a rebuilt Iraqi Army."
The release is good news for the Bush administration, but it also raises questions about how the US has been dealing with those it has captured in the broader "war on terrorism."
"It seems clear that the Pentagon has been trying to be very careful about the Geneva Conventions, trying to steer around the legal and image land mines of the Afghan- and -terrorist-related 'detainees' at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba," says retired Navy Captain and Pentagon strategist Larry Seaquist. "I'd expect that to be a major sensitivity here."
In any case, Sunday's rescue says much about the US attitude toward its soldiers being taken prisoner.
"Coalition efforts to rescue captives and retrieve casualties aren't motivated solely by humanitarian concerns," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "They are an important contributor to troop morale, because they signal that soldiers who take risks will not be sacrificed to the larger cause unless that is unavoidable. They also convey an important message to America's enemies: that even in wartime the coalition values life, and will punish those who squander it."
This in turn improves performance on the battlefield, experts say.
"There are a lot of reasons why our forces fought as effectively as they did in Iraq," says retired Navy Commander Michael Corgan, now a military historian at Boston University. "But this idea that we take care of people and go out and look for our POWs is a big factor."
Typically, soldiers such as Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch and those enlisted men and women returned Sunday receive only short basic training on what the military's code of conduct requires of POWs. Once a year there's another hour of training as a refresher. Most aircrews and Special Operations units like Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, and Delta Force undergo the military's course on Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE).
This is good preparation for the possibility of becoming a POW, says Mr. Corgan. "But no training can prepare you for the actual event - someone pointing a cocked, loaded pistol at your head."
Though the danger of fighting remains and the rebuilding of a chaotic Iraq is just beginning, there is much relief for the families and friends - and many Americans - that the war is over for the returned POWs.
Asked what he'd say to his son when he sees him, Ronald Young Sr. said: "I think I'll tell him to think about going into another career."
• Faye Bowers and Seth Stern contributed to this report.