David Williams calls it "withdrawals"--the yearning he feels after spending too much time with his feet planted firmly on the earth instead of a few thousand feet above the ground. For years, the Apache helicopter pilot was airborne at least an hour or two each week, but that was before the early morning of March 24, when his chopper was shot down in Iraq and he became a prisoner of war.
After being brutally captured and beaten, Williams and his copilot endured three weeks of torment in a series of decrepit prisons, in which they were repeatedly interrogated, blindfolded and bound with their hands behind their back. They also lived with the fear of being killed by the American air assault directed at Baghdad. At one point, a bomb blew off the prison roof and broke apart the concrete walls. During this time, Williams, 30, says he came to believe that he would never again see his wife, Michelle, or their two children, Jason, 2, and seven-month-old daughter, Madison. But on April 13, a group of Marines liberated the POWs, and when Williams arrived back in Texas a few days later, he was met with a hero's welcome. Since his return, Williams has visited with President Bush, attended a rally in his honor in Orlando, Florida, and appeared on "The Late Show with David Letterman." He's also struggled to overcome the haunting memories of his time in captivity, especially the harrowing moment when one particularly cruel guard touched the tip of an AK-47 directly to William's temple and prepared to fire. Until this week, he hadn't had an opportunity to get back in the air. But that changed on Wednesday when he invited NEWSWEEK's Julie Scelfo along for a ride in a single engine Cessna 172, taking off from the Killeen, Texas, airport and touring the surrounding areas. It didn't take long for Williams, bright-eyed and muscular despite his ordeal, to regain his confidence. "All right baby, this is what it's all about!" he cheered. But back on the ground, it was difficult for him to feel like the same person he was in the days before visiting Iraq. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How's your physical health?
David Williams: I lost 25 pounds from captivity. I'm still slowly gaining it back. I've only gained about five pounds so far.
Is it strange to hear yourself talk about "being in captivity"?
Yeah, it was like being an exhibit in a zoo. When they would look in on us, the guards wouldn't say anything. They would just open the window to look at us, then shut it.
Do you think about what happened a lot?
I have nightmares, all that good stuff. It's very dark. My hands are restricted and as hard as I try to yell, I can't turn the lights on or get anyone's attention.
Do certain things cause flashbacks?
I went on a cruise a few weeks after I got back from Kuwait. They were doing an air show and it was the most terrifying thing to hear those jets. Once I thought it was cool, but while I was in captivity I heard it every hour on the hour.
That must have been frightening.
I had a hard time every day in that cell. You can't imagine, you cannot imagine the terror to ... have bombs dropped down on you. I literally came to grips that I won't be coming home. Every campaign you hear boom, boom, boom. About the twelfth day, two bombs hit so close to our cell block the ceiling came down on us and walls three feet thick started to shake. I think about that every day.
What was the worst moment?
During an interrogation. It was at night and I was blindfolded. I wasn't answering questions the way they wanted and this guy spoke English and said, "You're not being honest with us." The barrel [was] lifted up to my temple and I hear him pull back the trigger. That was what my life was like for three weeks. I felt it against my head. I started crying--I said, "Please, God, don't kill me." I said to myself I have a wife and a little girl and also I was thinking, please make it quick.
Were there any lighter moments?
In the third prison, a guard came to the door and blindfolded and cuffed me and took me down the hallway. They sat me down and ripped off the blindfold, and there was a guy standing there with rubber gloves and a tray of utensils. The guy was like "Please. I am dentist and I want to look at your teeth." I'm like, what the hell? With bombs and firefights, you want to worry about my teeth? After he examines me, he goes, "Please please, I am a dentist and you must brush your teeth." I'm thinking, dude, I haven't showered in 20 days and you want me to brush my teeth?
Do you think your life will ever be normal again?
They said it could be years. I don't think it will ever be the same. It will probably never go away.