Operation Willing Spirit (OWS)
On 13 February 2003, a contracted reconnaissance plane was flying counter-narcotic surveillance missions for the U.S. contractor when the engine stalled. The plane was carrying 4 U.S. Department of Defense contractors, Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, Tom Janis, and Tom Howes, and 1 host nation rider, SGT Luis Alcides Cruz crashed in the jungles of Colombia. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) executed Tom Janis and SGT Cruz at the crash site, and took Keith, Marc, and Tom as hostages.
They were almost immediately discovered and captured by the FARC, and used as prisoner-exchange leverage by the group for more than half a decade afterward. They were traded from group to group to throw off any pursuit by authorities. Conditions were absolutely horrendous.
Keith Stansell, later recalled "During the first six months, we weren't even allowed to speak ... In fact, we lost our voices. We marched 10 to 18 kilometers a day in chains, on nothing but rice and beans. If we were lucky, they would kill an animal, like a taper or monkey, and we would have meat. "The FARC have absolutely zero value for human life. There's no humanity, no logic. The word 'terrorist' doesn't do justice to these guys."
Stansell described scenes of summary executions, wanton violence and remorseless cruelty. He also explained how teenagers from poor rural villages are "recruited" and brainwashed with communist dogma from a young age to continue the cycle of extortion and violence. He watched many of his captors grow from teenagers to adults during his captivity.
The US immediately initiated efforts to recover the 3 survivors. In 2005, under Operation OWS, the US along with the Colombian government and military began persistent activities from June 2005 to July 2008 with setting the conditions for a hostage recovery. SOCSOUTH deployed a command and control element (C2) in Colombia, Special Operations Command Forward (SOCFWD), for the purpose of providing on-site coordination to aid in the recovery effort.
In 2008, constant aerial surveillance caused the FARC to start making rash mistakes, Stansell said. The guards found cameras while moving near the border with Venezuela, and started panicking because no one had ever pursued them that deep into the jungle before. In the background, authorities had cracked the FARC communication codes.
On 2 July 2008, during a daring operation in which Colombian government forces pretended to be FARC commanders, Mr. Stansell and 15 others were rescued. After over 5 years in captivity, Keith, Marc, and Tom were were repatriated. The recovery was executed with no shots fired, no loss of life, no wounded - and with the capture of 2 senior FARC leaders.
"I remembered during our captivity, I had said, 'I would kill for a slice of pepperoni pizza and chocolate chip cookies,'" Stansell said. "We were on a C-17 flying home, and this young captain asked us how we were doing, so I told her the story. It turns out the crew had five large pepperoni pizzas aboard the aircraft. Afterward, she brought us chocolate chip cookies that she had baked that morning."
The Public statement by Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, of July 5, 2008, noted in part " we want to offer our heartfelt thanks to the Government and the Armed Forces of Colombia. The operation they conducted to rescue us was one for the history books-something we will never forget for the rest of our lives.... To our employer, Northrop Grumman, our sincere appreciation for your dedication and consistent support to our precious families throughout this ordeal.... Finally, we want to recognize our own United States Government who never forgot us... "
A captain with the 612th Air Operations Center earned the Air Force-level Outstanding Information Operations Active-Duty Company Grade Officer of the Year award 30 July 2009. Captain Bob Bernazal, the 612th AOC Information Operations Integration Strategy Division chief, was recognized for his successes with Operation Willing Spirit. As the lead for special technical operations during Willing Spirit, Captain Bernazal was instrumental in the planning process.
Captain Bernazal slashed the approval process time for plans involving special tactics operations from months to 16 days. He penned a plan to counter Islamic fundamentalists as well as FARC threats, ensuring U.S. Southern Command was postured for mission success. He also developed critical information lists and comprehensive security plans that were vital to cloaking and denying adversary access to sensitive information. Lieutenant Colonel Billy Roberson, 612th AOC Information Operations chief and Captain Bernazal's commander, said the captain deserved the award for his ability and dedication.
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