Five of the Army's servicemen and women became the first of 21 Americans held as prisoners of war in the Persian Gulf to receive medals for the "steep price" they paid "in the name of freedom."

Four of the five were awarded the Purple Heart, the Prisoner of War Medal and the National Defense Service Medal by Gen. Carl Vuono, Army chief of staff, during ceremonies Wednesday at a Walter Reed Army Medical Center auditorium packed with family members and well wishers.Staff Sgt. Daniel Stamaris of Boise, Idaho, the most seriously injured of the former POWs, received the three medals from Vuono at his bedside in Walter Reed, where he is recovering from multiple fractures suffered when his helicopter was shot down during a rescue mission.

Vuono called the five "the embodiment of the spirit, of the courage and sacrifice that are really the essence of America's soldiers who fought in Operation Desert Storm."

Flanked by an honor guard, Maj. Rhonda Cornum, of Freeville, N.Y., Spec. Troy Dunlap of Massac, Ill., Spec. David Lockett, of Bessemer Ala., and Spec. Melissa Rathbun-Nealy of Grand Rapids, Mich., stood at somber attention as an Army band played "God Bless America" and Vuono pinned the medals on their uniforms.

"I salute your service and your sacrifice on behalf of the American people and a free people throughout the world," Vuono told the former captives. "For each of you, Desert Storm has a much more personal side, for you have paid a steep price in the name of freedom."

The five soldiers were among 21 American former POWs returned to the United States Sunday and sent to hospitals of their military branches in the Washington area.

All but Stamaris, who is in stable condition, have been described by doctors as in good condition and ready to go home within a few days. None have yet been allowed to talk with reporters about their ordeal.

Officials of Walter Reed's transport division, assigned to aid the former POWs and their families, said the soldiers have requested trips off the hospital grounds for everything from hamburgers to a wedding ring during their first week of freedom in the United States.

"The Iraqis took Maj. Cornum's wedding ring," said Valerie Harding, a civilian transport officer. "She and her husband went to Alexandria (Va.) to replace it. They went to the same jewelry store where they bought the original ring to order it. Isn't that romantic?"

Cornum, 36, a flight surgeon, had both of her arms broken when her aircraft crashed before her capture. Cornum smiled broadly after the ceremonies, but her injuries made her unable to shake hands.