AP Photo/US Air Force - Lance Cheung
Former American hostage Keith Stansell, third from right, steps off the ramp of a C-17 Globemaster III onto U.S. soil at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, late Wednesday. Three U. S. citizens employed by Northrup Grumman Corp., Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, were held hostage for more than five years by a F.A.R.C. guerilla group in Columbia.

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas — Three American hostages rescued from leftist guerrillas in Colombia were back in the United States Thursday, more than five years after their plane went down in rebel-held jungle.

They returned to the U.S. late Wednesday, as their plane landed at Lackland Air Force Base shortly after 11 p.m. All appeared well as they exited the Air Force C-17 without fanfare. The men were flown by choppers to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where they were expected to undergo tests and be reunited with their families.

The U.S. military contractors — Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell — had been held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia since their drug-surveillance plane went down in the jungle in February 2003. Nowhere in the world have American hostages currently in captivity been held longer, according to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota.

The three were rescued when Colombian spies tricked leftist rebels into handing them over along with kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. She was also freed Wednesday, as were 11 Colombian police and soldiers.

Howes is a native of Chatham, Mass.; Gonsalves' father lives in Hebron, Conn.; and Stansell's family lives in Miami. Relatives were headed to Texas, looking forward to reuniting in time for the Fourth of July holiday.

Mike Gonsalves said on Thursday that the news of his brother's rescue was starting to feel more real. "It'll feel me real when I'm able to see my brother," Gonsalves, of Manchester, Conn., told CBS' "Early Show" in a phone interview before going to Texas.

"He looks good," the brother added. "They all look, you know, good for being what they went through — I think they look pretty good."

He said the five years of waiting for news on his brother was hard.

"You just wait and you wait for news," he said. "You wait for a day like yesterday and today, you know, for the end, you. You want it to end."

He said he hasn't been able to talk to his brother. "Today will be the first day," Gonsalves said.

Golsalves' father, George Gonsalves, was mowing his yard when an excited neighbor relayed the news he had seen on television Wednesday.

"I didn't know how to stop my lawnmower," he said. "I was shocked. I couldn't believe it."

"We're still teary-eyed and not quite have our wits about us," said Stansell's stepmother, Lynne.

And Howes' niece, Amanda Howes, said the rescue "redefines the word miracle."

Long before their rescue, it seemed like any public efforts to rescue the hostages had disappeared.

While France exhorted the world to care about the plight of Betancourt, who also holds French citizenship, and even sent a humanitarian mission in a failed rescue attempt this year, the U.S. government remained nearly silent about efforts to free the Americans, employees of a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary that has supported Colombia's fight against drugs and rebels.

Their families complained publicly about what seemed to be the U.S. government's failure to act.

"We didn't know what the heck was going on," George Gonsalves told reporters. "I'm getting information from you guys."

The Americans' fate seemed particularly grim after "proof-of-life" images released in November showed them appearing haggard, even haunted, against a deep jungle background.

The contractors and Betancourt were among a group of rebel-designated "political prisoners" whom the FARC planned to release only in exchange for hundreds of imprisoned rebels. But every attempt at talking about a prisoner swap seemed to go nowhere.

Behind the scenes, however, Colombia's armed forces were closing in on the rebels, with the help of billions of dollars in U.S. military support.

After the men were freed, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield said U.S. and Colombian forces cooperated closely on the rescue mission, including sharing intelligence, equipment, training advice and operational experience.

The Americans appeared healthy in a video shown on Colombian television, though Brownfield, who met with them at a Colombian military base, said two of the three were suffering from the jungle malady leishmaniasis and "looking forward to modern medical treatment."

Gonsalves' father, who later got a phone call from the FBI confirming his son was free, expected an emotional family reunion, especially for his son's three children, now teenagers. "Think about your children if they don't see you for a week a weekend or a month," he said. "It's five years pulled out of your life."

Associated Press writers Michelle Roberts in San Antonio, Frank Bajak and Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, Beth Fouhy with the McCain campaign, Pamela Hess in Washington and Stephen Singer in Hebron, Conn., contributed to this report.