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Ex-hostage Stansell: ‘I survived because of my family!’

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Keith Stansell says the thick growth of palmettoes and oaks that comes right up to his back door is nothing like the Colombian jungle where he spent more than five and a half years in captivity.

No, it’s nothing like the triple-canopy jungle darkness where he was held hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, from Feb. 13, 2003, to July 2, 2008.

“This is not jungle,” Stansell said. “The jungle is a place where sunshine can’t reach.”

He was working as an anti-narcotics contractor for Northrop Grumman doing drug surveillance when his plane lost an engine and crashed in Colombia’s southern jungle. He and his fellow contractors, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, would become among the longest-held hostages in American history.

The hostages were kept at fixed locations in brutal conditions for months, and then marched 15 to 18 kilometers a day through the jungle. He became emaciated from malnutrition and infested with parasites.

The captors took turns making beans and rice and, once in a while, filled a tub with hot water and added instant coffee.

Stansell kept a journal for years but finally burned it.

“All I saw was misery and pain,” he said.

And then July 2, 2008, it suddenly ended when Colombian undercover agents deceived the rebels into handing over the three Americans, as well as kidnapped Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and 11 Colombian police officers and soldiers.

A helicopter filled with Colombian commandos posing as leftist humanitarian relief workers picked up Stansell and his colleagues and flew them to freedom without a shot being fired.

Stansell, 44, now seems all the way back from darkness and is talking about his experiences as described in a new book, “Out of Captivity,” written with Gonsalves and Howes with Gary Brozek.

After his rescue, Stansell went into seven months of self-imposed exile, declining to talk to the media and remaining low-key with his family. He made only one appearance, on CNN, during that time.

“I noticed that many hostages once they are released seem to talk endlessly,” Stansell said. “I didn’t want to do that. I thought it was better to assemble my thoughts and feelings.”

Those thoughts and feelings, which he is now ready to share, are powerful and delivered in measured and calm tones.

He relates that the simple act of shaving can now bring euphoria. Every day he notices the red marks from the neck chain he wore and realizes that a day without neck chains can’t ever be bad.

“Oh yeah, I was a guy who enjoyed his things,” Stansell said. “But after five and a half years in the jungle, I lost every personal belonging. Now I realize physical stuff is zero. It’s just stuff. It’s actually liberating to be free of it.

“How I survived is that I found my strength,” Stansell said. “You have to find out what makes you live. For me, that was my children. I decided never to give up. I decided that if I was free for only one day, that would be worth spending 10 years as a prisoner.”

There was always the constant threat of death, but it never came closer than once when the hostages were packed together as a helicopter circled overhead.

“If the rebels heard a helicopter they knew it probably was the Colombian army and the order would be to drill us with their automatic weapons,” Stansell said.

Knowing what was happening, Stansell challenged one of the guards, speaking aggressively in Spanish.

“I told him that we were humans and didn’t deserve to be shot like dogs in a pack,” Stansell said. “I told him to be a man. He kept his head down. He wouldn’t look at me. He held a cell phone. I knew if the word was spoken, we were dead. The word never came and we went on. That was the closest we came.”

Stansell feels no affection for his captors. He didn’t develop friendships. He stayed strong and alert and did what he had to do to survive. He still has anger toward the rebels, who he said are only interested in gaining wealth and power from manufacturing and selling drugs.

Since his rescue, Stansell has gained 50 pounds and is trying to get his “gym rat” muscles back.

“I can’t eat a big American meal yet,” Stansell said. “My stomach has shrunk. When I got back, I was given a powerful, toxic drug to kill the parasites in my body. If I had taken it for long it would have killed me stone dead. It was like chemotherapy. I was like dead for a few weeks, but when it was over, I was clean. I’m on the way back now.”

Stansell is adored by his family, including his wife-to-be Patricia Medina, daughter, Lauren, 20, son, Kyle, 16, and twin sons, Nicholas and Keith, 6.

Now that the book has come out and climbed to No. 3 on the New York Times Best-seller list, there has been talk of a movie and a new book about Patricia.

What she went through was very difficult also. She was pregnant with the twins when Stansell’s drug surveillance plane crashed. She lived with her parents during his captivity. She said she never thought he was dead. She had a feeling he would come back to her.

Asked how she survived the ordeal, she paused, with her left hand on Stansell’s knee, and said: “Because I loved him.”

On March 12, Stansell, Howes and Gonsalves were each awarded the Defense Medal of Freedom, the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart.

Stansell will participate in a book signing for “Out of Captivity” 6-9 p.m. Friday at Lakewood Ranch Booksellers, on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch. Customers who cannot attend the event can call (941) 907-9487 to reserve personalized copies.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917.

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