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The power of faith and hope: Former POW shares story to help today’s Soldiers

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Dan Stamaris, quality assurance specialist with the Aviation Center Logistics Command and POW during Desert Storm, exits the UH-60 Black Hawk he took his final flight in, arranged for him last year by F Company, 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation. (Photo by Jim Hughes)

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Dan Stamaris, quality assurance specialist with the Aviation Center Logistics Command and POW during Desert Storm, exits the UH-60 Black Hawk he took his final flight in, arranged for him last year by F Company, 1st Battalion, 212th Aviation. (Photo by Jim Hughes)

Published: February 25, 2016

Twenty-five years ago, retired Sgt. 1st Class Dan Stamaris became a prisoner of war.

In the desert of Iraq in February 1991, it took only five seconds for Stamaris, the crew chief and gunner of a Black Hawk helicopter, to become a Soldier captured by the enemy. In those seconds, he went from shooting down the enemy to being one of only three survivors of a wartime helicopter crash.

During the next eight days, the badly injured Stamaris was left for dead twice, threatened with mutilation and death, and paraded through villages as a war trophy.

In that time, Stamaris became more than a POW. He also became a survivor, a war hero and a man who knows what it’s like to have his faith tested to its very limits. For Stamaris, Operation Desert Storm became a defining point in his life.

“It’s important that this history be remembered,” said Stamaris, an Aviation and Missile Command employee who volunteers to share his story with service members who attend the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program at Fort Rucker.

“If anyone remembers anything from my story, I hope they remember the power of faith and hope. They are the key elements to being able to survive something like this. I was in survival mode because I didn’t want to die. But because of my faith, I was able to lean on God to get through what they did to me.”

Stamaris, a highly decorated veteran, retired from the Army three years after returning from Iraq. In 1997, he began working at Fort Rucker as a maintenance contractor. In 2001, he became a Department of the Army civilian working at Fort Rucker as a quality assurance specialist for AMCOM’s Aviation Logistics Center, Aviation Center Logistics Command.

But it was in 1990-91 that Stamaris’ life changed forever through three significant events: a deployment to Operation Desert Shield, during which he learned new tricks to keep helicopters flying in the “talcum powder” sand of Southwest Asia; a continued deployment in Operation Desert Storm where he flew countless combat missions; and the actions of Feb. 27, 1991, when, near dusk, he was part of a UH-60 Black Hawk crew that went on a search-and-rescue mission for a downed F-16 fighter pilot near Basra. The crew was part of the Flying Tigers 2-229th Attack Helicopter Battalion from Fort Rucker, stationed at the King Fahad International Airport in Saudi Arabia.

“We were the closest Americans and someone needed our help, so we went,” Stamaris said of the attempted rescue of downed F-16 pilot Bill Andrews.

“We were looking for the guy and came upon heavy enemy fire from all directions. We were firing back. But then we got hit and it blew off our whole tail section. It was five seconds from the time we got hit to the time we hit the ground at about 150 miles per hour.”

In those seconds, Stamaris heard the pilot call “May Day, May Day.” He also heard another voice – he believes it was God speaking to him – telling him to stow his weapon, an M-60 machine gun.

“I assumed the crash position and said a prayer and told my body to go limp. There’s no way you can brace yourself for that kind of impact. I shouldn’t even be here today because of that crash,” he said.

It wasn’t until much later, when Stamaris read the autopsy of his fellow gunner Billy Butts, that he realized why he needed to stow his weapon. Butts died from blunt force trauma to his chest caused by the impact of his M-60 machine gun during the crash.

But surviving the crash was only the beginning of Stamaris’ ordeal.

“I was still strapped in and we were upside down. The Iraqis were still firing at the aircraft. I could smell fuel. So, I grabbed the harnesses, unlocked my seatbelt and crawled out of the aircraft on pure adrenaline,” he said.

The crash had broken everything in Stamaris’ left leg, from the foot all the way to his femur and pelvis. The Iraqis found him, went through his pockets, threw his dog tags in the sand and left him for dead. They returned an hour later, found him still alive, put him on a tarp and in the back of a truck, and took him to an interrogation team.

“The whole time they were doing all this, I was in excruciating pain. I thought my back was broken,” he said.

“The Iraqis thought I was a pilot. They spit on me and threatened me. But they didn’t have to do too much because all I had to do was move and I was in terrible pain. I told them I was a mechanic. I wasn’t about to tell them I was the door gunner shooting back at them.”

They put Stamaris in the back of another truck, with his head hanging out the tail gate, and drove him around, showing him off as a war trophy. Every stop and start, every jarring bump, caused Stamaris new pain.

They dropped him on the side of a dirt road and left him there to die. The tarp and a nylon jacket were the only things Stamaris had to stay warm as night fell and the temperatures dipped into the 40s. He was able to keep his core temperature up by wrapping himself backwards in the jacket to create a cavity around his core, and then using his breath to warm up under the jacket.

“I prayed a lot. I counted the tanks and vehicles that went by. I thought maybe I could still get some valuable information on these guys,” he recalled.

The next morning, a group of Iraqis saw him, and told him the war had ended and they would take him to a hospital. After unsuccessfully trying to put a splint on his leg, they managed to get Stamaris on top of an armored personnel carrier. They then drove toward Basra.

“I didn’t believe the war was over. Then they turned me over to another group of Iraqis that looked rougher. They showed me off some and then I ended up at the entrance to a courtyard with an Iraqi officer who told me two of his sons were killed in the war by bombs and that he was going to kill me,” Stamaris said.

“I said ‘No, no! They said they were taking me to the hospital!’ Then I heard a voice – I believe it was God – telling me to shut up. I decided right then ‘Whatever your will be, God, so be it.’”

There were more threats, more jostling around in vehicles and a drive into the desert, and time spent isolated in a prison, but eventually Stamaris did receive food and medical care. Iraqi doctors put his left leg in an external fixator.

“I knew that they did try to do the best they could,” he said. “It was a miracle that I even made it that far alive. I found out later from U.S. doctors that all this time there were broken fragments within just a couple of millimeters of my main leg artery. If those fragments had moved during all I went through, I could have died.”

Back in 1979, when Stamaris enlisted in the Army, he knew there was always a chance he would go to war. He trained in places like Germany and Korea. He had some desert training, but nothing that really prepared him for the challenges of going to war in the deserts of Southwest Asia.

“We did have time to get climatized and we did a lot of field training during Operation Desert Shield. We did missions – moving Soldiers, parts runs, things like that,” he said. “But my Army training was mostly a mix of the Code of Conduct, Geneva Convention, John Wayne, Chuck Norris and Rambo.”

He is glad to see that Fort Rucker’s SERE program has expanded in recent years to be must-have training for every military pilot.

“If it was up to me, everybody would go through SERE training as part of basic training. It’s important to know how to survive as a POW because modern combat has no set line for combat,” Stamaris said.

“Even with training, you can’t really know what people will go through if they ever have to switch into survival mode. You hope they will draw on what you tell them and that it will help them if they need it. I didn’t know that I could survive this kind of ordeal because no one really knows. But it’s better if you at least know what to expect. That’s what SERE does and what I hope to do by telling my story.”

The hardest part about being a POW is the lack of information and “absolutely having no control over the situation, no rights, no nothing, and knowing that the other side doesn’t always follow by the rules,” he said.

Stamaris has a Prisoner of War Medal, a Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and several other war medals along with the 2011 Fort Rucker Outstanding Employee of the Year with a Disability and 2011 Ernest A. Young Logistics Achievement Award (Professional/Technical Category) for outstanding contributions to AMCOM. He has shared his experience more times than he can count, not only at SERE but also at church and community gatherings, and in the media and in a video for the National Prisoner of War Museum.

“I am doing this for the SERE students and anyone who might have to someday deal with a life threatening situation. But this is also good therapy for me,” he said.

After he returned from Iraq, Stamaris remained in the Army for three years, but he never worked on a helicopter again.

Although his POW experience makes him a hero in the eyes of many, Stamaris shies away from that status and even downplays it, especially with his children.

“I’m just dad to them. We don’t dwell on that stuff. It happened way before they were born,” Stamaris said. “I’m just a guy who was doing my job. I’m a veteran who served his country.

“I’m just happy when veterans everywhere are getting recognized for their sacrifices to this nation,” he added. “Those who are serving today – they are my heroes.”

This article was originally published at http://www.army.mil/article/162163/

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