Former POW Sgt. James Riley knows fear.
Riley was captured on March 23, along with five other Army soldiers from the Fort Bliss, Texas-based 507th Maintenance Company, when they were ambushed by Iraqi fighters near Nasiriyah. Nine of his comrades were killed.
As the senior surviving soldier, Riley was the one who made the decision to surrender. Riley and seven others — including Pfc. Jessica Lynch — were taken prisoner.
"It was an experience in sheer terror," Riley, 31, said in an exclusive interview with Good Morning America. "On a scale of 1 to 10 it was right off the charts."
The world first saw Riley soon after he was captured, when he was one of the American prisoners of war put on display on Iraqi television. He said little, but his face seemed to express feelings beyond words.
During that forced television appearance, the Pennsauken, N.J., native had a lot going through his mind.
"Too many things," Riley said. "Fear, anger, sadness. Too many different emotions and none positive."
‘If You’re an American, Stand Up’
He and the others endured three weeks of captivity. He lost 30 pounds.
But after 21 days, he and the others found themselves looking at something they weren't sure they would ever see again: freedom. The Marines came to the rescue, and Riley and his comrades were released.
"'If you're an American, stand up' — I remember hearing that when they came through the door," Riley recalled. "Overwhelming ... [I was] off the charts with joy."
But the joy was mixed with terrible sadness. When Riley was finally able to telephone his parents, he learned his sister, Mary, 29, who had suffered from a long illness, died March 28 after two months in a coma with a rare neurological disorder … just days before his release.
Again, Riley had a mix of emotions.
"It was emotional overload," he said. "The very high point of being rescued, coming back home, and then bad news like that. But people die all time. Some close to you — but life does go on."
A Hero’s Welcome
Touching down on American soil, he returned to a hero's welcome. On Monday, his hometown in New Jersey saluted him with a mile-long parade. But Riley does not consider himself a hero.
"We do this all the time," he said. "Not being a POW — that's bad … [but] we operate all over the world … this is our job, doing this for centuries. I'm not a hero. Not my definition of a hero at all."
Perhaps only Riley's fellow former POWs can truly understand what he's been through.
"It's a shared experience a lot of people don't have," Riley said. "There's a bond that's there. We're kind of like a family — a real tight family."