Throughout the holiday week, YourObserver.com will be counting down the top 12 stories of 2009 (one from each month) from our Longboat, East County and Sarasota Observers. Check back each day for a reprinting — and any relevant updates — of the biggest news items of the year.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED APRIL 2, 2009.
LAKEWOOD RANCH — Few know the value of Freedom as well as Keith Stansell.
The Edgewater resident reaches forward, picking up a silver- and gold-colored lock from his desk.
“See this lock?” Stansell begins. “That’s what I wore around my neck every day. I look at that every day, and I don’t forget where I came from.”
He tugs on the collar of his shirt, showing the scars created by a chain that wrapped around his neck like a collar on a dog.
Stansell and two other Americans — Marc Gonsalves and Tom Howes — were working as American defense contractors when then their plane crashed Feb. 13, 2003, in the Colombian jungle. They woke up, bloodied, with guns pointed in their faces, and spent the next five-and-one-half years as hostages of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as FARC.
The men have recounted their experiences in their new book, “Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle.”
Released in February, the book is already a bestseller. And with the backing of publisher HarperCollins, Stansell could sign books at any major bookstore. Instead, he’ll be autographing copies from 6-9 p.m., April 3, at Lakewood Ranch Booksellers on Main Street during Music on Main.
“It’s a way I would like to support my community,” Stansell says. “It’s a great bookstore. It’s a privilege for us to have it right (here).”
Return to civilization
Stansell is the first to admit life has been hectic since returning from captivity. When he left, text messaging had just begun, and iPods hadn’t even come out yet. And now, the business development manager for Northrop Grumman has a Blackberry, a cell phone and two laptop computers for work.
“We came out the same way we went in (to the jungle),” Stansell says. “Just trying to catch back up with everyday life is the hardest thing.”
But Stansell is managing, soaking in every minute he can with his family — his two children: Kyle, a junior at Cardinal Mooney High School, and Lauren, 20; and fiancee Patricia Medina, and their twin boys Keith and Nicholas, who hadn’t been born when Stansell was taken hostage.
His parents, Gene and Lynne Stansell, live just a short drive away and were instrumental in managing their son’s estate during his absence and helping him get settled back into life.
“I choose to stay here for that — my family,” says Stansell, who was living in Georgia before he was taken hostage. “(My family) was my strength when I was in captivity.
“Without my mother and father, I would be about 10 steps behind where I’m at now,” he says. “I don’t know what I would have done with out them. I stepped off the plane and I didn’t know if I had a shirt.”
Although Stansell would not want to leave his family again, he says he does not have any regrets about his experience. His pain now lies in knowing that other captives with whom he became friends — many of whom have been imprisoned more than a decade — are still in chains in the jungle.
Stansell sends them messages through the radio — as his family did for him during his time in captivity in hopes he was still alive.
The former U.S. Marine remains passionate about stopping drug trafficking, which is used to fund terrorism, and says Americans need to be thankful for what they have and continue to fight for their freedom.
“We’re not a perfect country, but we’re the best thing I’ve ever seen,” Stansell says. “We need to be proud. I hope that we as Americans have the stomach for the fight. We cannot get weak now.”
For information on Stansell’s book signing or to order copies, contact Lakewood Ranch Booksellers at 907-9487 or www.lakewoodranchbooks.com.
On March 12, Stansell, Gonsalves and Howes received the Defense of Freedom Medal, which was created after Sept. 11, 2001, for civilians involved in combat missions.
“It was a professional highlight for me,” says Stansell, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years and then worked full-time with the National Guard. “It was an honor to receive that.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].