About the Author: Kristin Haworth serves in the Economic Section at U.S. Embassy Bogota in Colombia.
On a sunny but chilly Bogota day, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howe walk across a parking lot, that, instead of cars, boasts a white and red painted Russian helicopter. It is not just any day, and this is not just any helicopter. It was this helicopter, exactly two years ago, that rescued Marc, Tom, Keith Stansell and 12 Colombian citizens, during the daring Colombian military operation "Jaque" ("checkmate"). The three American contractors were held hostage in the jungle for five years by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after their drug surveillance plane crashed deep in the Colombian jungle. The U.S. Embassy Bogota in Colombia has, thanks to the Colombian Army, flown in the helicopter for the Fourth of July event on the embassy grounds this year.
Marc squints hard at the copter as he nears it, and a small crowd of onlookers gathers around him -- some holding copies of a book written by the three survivors. Both men pause for photos in front of the chopper, signing books, and greeting a few familiar faces in the crowd. It is the first time they've seen the helicopter since their rescue. Marc hovers near the door, posing for photos, but is clearly anxious to peek inside. He climbs in, and sits down near the jump seat. “I think I was sitting right here,” he marvels. Tom joins him minutes later. “Looks a lot cleaner than I remember it!” he jokes. He sits next to his former colleague, and they reminisce about the day that changed their lives forever. “I was here, and Cesar was here,” Marc says, motioning at the floor where the FARC leader in charge of the hostages had been handcuffed. “And he was just going crazy, trying to get away.”
The men linger in the helicopter, chatting as the Bogota sun sinks a bit lower. It's almost time for the official event. VIPs stream in through the receiving line into the embassy's consular waiting area, which has been festooned with red, white, and blue balloons and photos of U.S. government programs in Colombia. U.S. Ambassador William R. Brownfield begins his remarks by acknowledging the anniversary of the rescue and reads aloud the names of the U.S. and Colombian hostages rescued that day, as well as the two men killed by the FARC after the U.S. plane crash, American pilot Tom Janis and Colombian police sergeant Luis Alcides Cruz.
“This day will always be for me 'Operation Jacque' day,” he tells the assembled crowd, which includes former hostage and Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. “And on the Fourth of July 234 years ago, the founding fathers made a pact in the city of Philadelphia. It was more than just a declaration, it was about the universal principles that it represented: the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, the freedom to protest.” The Ambassador concludes with a rousing toast: to the independence of both countries and the “democratic friendship” that binds us.
The community event follows. In the tradition of an American state fair, it features food tents, games, and a giant inflatable bouncy castle. Thousands of guests dance to the live beats of Colombian singer Jorge Celedon, the Colombian Navy band, and reggae-hip hop band Kyo. The highlight of the night, as it is at any Fourth of July celebration, is the booming fireworks display. As patriotic songs play, many in the crowd are likely reflecting upon the individual sacrifices so many have made for our country, including people like Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howe, Keith Stansell, and Thomas Janis, who we never forgot.
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