When we think of prisoners of war, many tend to think of World War II or Vietnam.
But one former Army Soldier spent 32 days as a POW in 1999.
Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez
Former Army Staff Sgt. Andrew Ramirez recounted his time as a prisoner of war in 1999 during a POW/MIA Remembrance Ceremony and dinner at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Sept. 10, 2021.
The dinner was hosted by the Edwards AFB Air Force Sergeants Association, Chapter 1328. The ceremony included the traditional POW/MIA Table, or Missing Man Table, presentation which honors prisoners of war, or those still missing in action, and their family still awaiting news of their service members.
“Having a solemn moment and remembering those additional sacrifices that POWs and their families, and the families that are still waiting for the return of their loved one, I think is a very important thought, a very important memory and a very important thing for you to share,” said Brig. Gen. Matthew Higer, 412th Test Wing Commander, during the ceremony’s opening remarks.
Following the table presentation, Ramirez talked about his experience as a POW during what he calls, the 32 worst days of his life.
“Days such as this are necessary reminders that our freedom is not free,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez’s story began on March 31, 1999. As a member of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, his unit was deployed to the Macedonian-Serbian border during Operation Allied Force. During a routine patrol along the border, he and two other Soldiers, Staff Sgt. Christopher Stone and Spc. Steven Gonzalez, received direct gunfire inside their Humvee.
Due to the rules of engagement at the time, they could not fire back. Ramirez, the vehicle’s driver, broke from the enemy. Their vehicle and radio was disabled however. The Soldiers were able to relay only part of their coordinates to their headquarters, Ramirez said.
“It was a very hectic three minutes, to say the least,” Ramirez said.
He then talked about how they were pulled from the Humvee and met with a violent and angry mob. He remembered being placed on his knees between the two other Soldiers, waiting to be executed.
“All I could think about was that I would see one of my comrades, before it was my turn,” he said. “I thought it was the end of my life, it’s a feeling I will never forget.”
For the first 10 days of captivity, the three Soldiers were moved numerous times to different safe houses and interrogated. They were asked questions they could never answer, Ramirez said. They were then moved to a prison were they stayed for roughly the next 22 days.
A coalition of delegates, which included Rev. Jesse Jackson, worked for the Soldiers’ release. They were released to Jackson on their 32nd day of captivity and returned to Germany before returning home.
“My story has the happiest of endings. I live each and every day with my beautiful wife and children,” he said. “I have a chance to live my life.”
After his military career, Ramirez attended college and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He most recently taught 5th grade with the Palmdale School District. He added that many are not as fortunate, and their waiting families also are suffering.
“Please take a moment this week to remember the sacrifice of those that have been prisoners of war, those that are still might be missing in action … May they never be forgotten.”
After his presentation, Ramirez explained why he still feels it is important to talk about his experience, no matter how painful they may be.
“There are thousands of service members still missing in action whose families just could never get any closure,” he said. “It actually brings a little bit of light to that, but it probably needs a lot more.”
He also explained that by sharing his story, he also encourages other service members to talk about their own traumatic experiences in order to help their own mental health as he does.
“For those that don’t find any outlet, those that need someone to speak to, there’s always somebody,” he said. “We have to find that person we trust and say what it is we need to say out loud to get that burden out. That’s what this does for me; allows me to say things out loud and it is a bit of a therapy.”
In honor of the sacrifices made by Ramirez and those like him, the base commander has authorized the temporary wear of the POW/MIA patch on Airmen’s uniforms in place of their unit patch. The authorization will last until the end of POW/MIA Recognition Day, Sept. 17.