Freed Hostages Face Family Challenges

They were gone for so many years. Now, the relatives of 15 hostages rescued in an undercover mission by the Colombian National Army are facing the great unknown of reintegrating into their families.

Columbian-French citizen Ingrid Betancourt was the first to reunite with her children. Three American hostages -- Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell -- returned to American soil Wednesday night and spent the holiday weekend recuperating and transitioning back into the lives they once knew.

Psychiatrists say how well these reunions go often depends on a complex combination of circumstances: the ex-hostage's personal history, the age of the family members when they separated, and what exactly happened during the years they were held hostage.

Reunion: Absence and the Status Quo

"People can have a honeymoon effect after a reunion and then problems can develop," said Dr. Spencer Eth, medical director of St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan and a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College.

"Some families heal very well, others break apart," he said. "So much depends on the age and maturity of the spouse and the nature of the relationship before the separation."

If the family was stable with a lot of outside support, the family will often deal better during the absence, said Eth. However if either the parent or the children feel isolated and become depressed, it will have a reciprocal effect on the other family members.

Family members sometimes idealize the missing person.

"Frequently the parent who's missing becomes idealized and that becomes an organizing principle," said Eth. "If things go bad, it's because Dad isn't here to take care of us, or I'm going to do very well so Dad will be proud of me when he gets back."

The disappointment after the real parent returns can be a little damaging: "They may think, 'We've waited for Daddy for so long and now look at him. This is what we've been waiting for?'"

Unlike military deployment or work time apart, a hostage situation carries an extra burden of uncertainty. Children or spouses might go through anticipatory mourning as if the parent is already dead and begin to let go, said Eth.

But many family members manage to survive the separation, and then only have to struggle getting to know the returned parent and change their routine.

"Even in a crisis there's an equilibrium that develops, so that a new routine is established," said Eth. "Then when the parent returns, that status quo has to be changed and so there's a new crisis, a new period of adjustment."

Of all the families who may go through a separation -- through work, military deployment or in immigrant families -- Eth believes the experience of a prisoner of war most mimics the experience of the Colombian hostages.

Coming Home in a Kaleidoscope

U.S. Navy Commander Paul Galanti distinctly remembers his reunion with his wife after 6 years and 8 months in a POW camp in the Hanoi Hilton Complex in North Vietnam.

He was shot down in 1966 and captured. It was 1973 -- two hours after Valentine's Day, with a negative wind chill at the Norfolk Naval Air Station -- when he finally came home.

"I stepped off that airplane after being in the tropics for years," said Galanti. "It was just like I walked into an ice block."

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