As long as Melissa Rathbun-Nealy is going down in history as the first American female prisoner of war, her father, Leo Rathbun, would just as soon have the Pentagon call her a POW. But it won't. Nealy disappeared near Khafji, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 30, when she got lost while delivering a vehicle back to its unit after repairs. The Pentagon says she is "missing" and that the military needs more information before it can put her on the POW list.
It is a list that Rathbun wants his daughter's name on so the Iraqis are forced to account for her when the dust settles in the Persian Gulf war.Nealy, 20, never expected to make history when she joined the Army. She wanted an adventure, and she wanted to pay for her college education, her father told our associate Melinda Maas. Nealy's job with the 233rd Transportation Company of Fort Bliss, Texas, was to drive heavy equipment, not to face an enemy in combat.
On Jan. 30, she headed north out of a maintenance facility near Dhahran in a heavy equipment transport vehicle, or HET. Another HET traveled with her. Their convoy commander passed them and then stopped for gas. He looked up to see the two HETs go straight through an intersection where they were supposed to turn west. They were headed for Khafji, which was soon to become the site of the first ground battle of the war.
Outside of Khafji, the two HETs stopped and their drivers debated whether or not they were lost, according to the account the Army gave Rathbun. Farther along the road, they spotted something they didn't expect to see in Saudi Arabia - Iraqi troops coming toward them. One HET made a U-turn. But Nealy's vehicle became stuck. The last thing the other driver saw before going for help was Nealy and her co-driver, Spec. David Lockett, still in the HET and Iraqi troops approaching them.
When Marines came back to rescue them, the HET was still there, but Nealy and Lockett were gone. Iraqis taken prisoner by Saudi forces at Khafji told of seeing the capture of two American soldiers, a man and a woman. The Saudis got another report later about two POWs seen near the Iraqi city of Basra - a white woman and a black man. (Nealy is white and Lockett is black.) That's not enough for the Pentagon to call them POWs, but it is enough for Rathbun. The anguished father took matters in his own hands and wrote Saddam Hussein a letter, asking for his daughter's release, or to let the Red Cross see her.
Like many enlistees, Nealy was not prepared to be taken prisoner. Pilots and special operations people get rigorous POW training, but the Army says it is unrealistic and expensive to train everyone for the unimaginable.
The vast majority of the reservists, Na-tional Guardsmen and logistics personnel in the allied forces had no preparation for being taken prisoner by the Iraqis. A recent report by Amnesty International warns about Iraq's track record with POWs. They are routinely tortured.