Thailand Cave Boys Say They Want to Be Navy SEAL Divers in First Public Comments Since Rescue

The rescued members of the Thai youth soccer team appeared together in public for the first time since their astounding rescue from a flooded cave system in the north of the country last week.

The 12 boys—aged 11 to 16—and their 25-year-old coach held a press conference at Chiang Rai's provincial hall today, detailing their harrowing experience and thanking the determined rescue teams who saved their lives. All have now been discharged from the hospital and left the facility wearing their team's soccer jersey.

The tightly controlled conference was broadcast as part of the Thailand Moves Forward show. All the boys, their coach and a handful of rescuers were asked pre-vetted questions submitted by journalists. Behind them, a large poster read, "Sending the Wild Boars home," referring to the name of the team.

The 12 Thai boys and their football coach, rescued from a flooded cave, attend a press conference in Chiang Rai on July 18, following their discharge from the hospital. The team’s coach said some of the team members had been quite deep in the cave before, but this time the complex flooded too quickly for them to escape. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images

The boys, all looking relaxed, smiled and waved to the assembled media. A small soccer field had been set up in front of the stage, where the boys displayed some of their skills before speaking.

One of the doctors who had been treating the boys assured reporters they were in good health. They had regained the weight they'd lost while underground, and were now "ready to return to normal life," he said. Every member of the team was "truly very strong."

Lt. Col. Dr. Pak Lohanchun remained with the boys until the last one had been rescued from the cave on July 10. He told journalists the boys had not only been gaining weight but talking more since they'd been evacuated. He said the team could not wait to go home and have some "delicious" food now that their digestive systems had recovered.

Being trapped underground for so long could also damage the boys' mental health, experts said. But a hospital psychologist who was helping with their rehabilitation reported that all the boys were mentally healthy.

The 12-member Wild Boars soccer team and their coach pose with a picture of Saman Kunan, a Thai navy diver who died as he tried to rescue them, at the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital, in Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 14. Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital and Ministry of Public Health/via REUTERS

The team's coach, Ekaphol Chantawong, said some of the team members had been quite deep in the cave before, but this time the complex flooded too quickly for them to escape. Though Chantawong was initially confident they could find their way to safety, after several days and with energy levels dropping, he realized they couldn't survive for much longer.

Eleven-year-old Chanin Wiboonrungruang—nicknamed Titan—recalled that he'd tried not to think about food as the hours turned into days, and the days into weeks. The starving boys tried to fill up on water to keep their hunger at bay.

When they had the energy, the boys tried to dig their way out of the cave, they explained. Initially, they expected the water to recede and open their way for an escape, but the floodwaters continued to rise.

Describing their discovery by British rescue divers on July 2, one of the boys said he couldn't believe there was another voice in the cave, and was quite surprised that the diver was not Thai. Upon hearing that all 13 missing team members were there, the diver simply replied, "Brilliant." One boy said it was a "miracle" they were found.

Some of the 12 Thai boys who'd been rescued from a flooded cave arrived at a press conference in Chiang Rai on July 18, following their discharge from the hospital. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images

While they waited for the rescue mission to begin, Thai Navy SEALs and doctors kept the team company and kept them busy with games like chess. The divers said that after so many days in the cave with the team, they had established a close bond, and now felt like one big family.

The team had ventured into the cave system on June 23 before getting trapped by heavy rains. Fleeing the rising waters, the team pushed deeper and deeper into the mountainside. The alarm was raised when the boys failed to return home that evening.

More than 1,000 Thai personnel and dozens of international specialists converged on the Tham Luang cave system in the north of the country for the rescue. After 17 days spent trapped in a dark and flooded cavern, all 13 stranded members were evacuated.

The rescue operation was risky, and had already claimed the life of former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, 38, who had suffocated after running out of oxygen in the tight tunnels. Chantawong recalled that the team was shocked when it heard of the accident, and felt guilty about Kunan's death.

They brought out a large drawing of the deceased diver, and expressed their gratitude for his sacrifice. Each member of the team had written his own message of thanks and condolences on the picture, which will be given to Kunan's family. "Thank you from the depths of my heart," one read.

When the decision came to bring the boys out, all were sedated to keep them calm. The divers used a buddy system to ferry them 2.5 miles through treacherous blind twists and turns to safety.

Engineers tirelessly pumped water from the caverns to help the rescue mission. There were fears that a new bout of rainfall—it was only the beginning of country's rainy season—might flood the entire complex. With no alternatives, the decision was made to bring the boys out. All those stranded were rescued in the space of three days.

Since their escape, the Wild Boars have been recovering in Chiang Rai hospital. Though all were weak and some showed signs of pneumonia, the lucky boys—and their coach—appeared to be in good health.

When asked what they had learned from their experience, some of the boys said they would be more careful in taking risks, and others said they would live their lives to the fullest. As for what the future holds, more than one team member said they hoped to become professional soccer players. A few even hope to become Thai Navy SEAL divers, following in the footsteps of their rescuers and newfound heroes.

The boys also apologized to family members, especially their parents, for not telling them they were headed to the caves. The youngest player, Titan, said he probably deserved a stern telling off.

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