THE FIRST TIME we caught a glimpse of Steven Gonzales, he was staring mournfully back at us, his fate uncertain as he stood before Serbian television cameras with two other battered and bruised GIs, all of them captives in enemy hands. It was hardly what he had in mind growing up in the towns of Temple and Palestine, where he dreamed of becoming an Army Ranger. But three years after dropping out of Texas A&M University and enlisting in the armed services, the 22-year-old became a pawn in an international conflict seemingly without end.

In late February he had volunteered to serve with NATO peacekeeping forces in the thick of the then-unfolding Kosovo crisis. About a month later, on March 31, while conducting a routine reconnaissance mission along a remote area on the northern edge of Macedonia, Gonzales and two sergeants found their Humvee under attack by Serbian forces. Their last words before disappearing, radioed to nearby units, were chilling: “We’re taking direct fire. We’re trapped. They’re all around us. We can’t get out.” Though they raised their hands in surrender, they were brutally beaten with rifle butts, and one Serb, brandishing a bayonet, threatened to cut off their ears. Their hands were then bound with duct tape, and they were forced to kneel at gunpoint. “At that moment,” Gonzales later said, “I thought there was a good possibility we would die.” 

Instead, they were handcuffed, hooded, and driven to an undisclosed location, where they spent a total of 32 days in solitary confinement. During his first week in captivity, Gonzales was repeatedly interrogated; Serbs believed that his Army rank of specialist indicated that he knew more than he was letting on. For weeks he saw little else besides his windowless cell, where he recited prayers and drew a makeshift calendar on the wall to keep his mind occupied. It was only after the Reverend Jesse Jackson secured the soldiers’ release on May 2 that Gonzales—who had been periodically beaten and threatened—realized that he would survive the ordeal.

Upon his return Gonzales received a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in captivity and a hero’s welcome in Huntsville, where his parents now live (he cut the last yellow ribbon down from a large pecan tree on the town square). A month later he returned to Germany, though he plans to re-enroll at A&M to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. It will be a fitting homecoming for a man whose thoughts have drifted back to Texas during good times and bad. In the first letter he wrote to his parents as a prisoner of war, he insisted he would make it back safely, then added, in his careful handwriting, “And tell those Aggies to gig ’em.”