By Paula Chin
Updated April 01, 1991 12:00 PM

Sunday had dawned warm and breezy in New Bern, N.C. Houses were quiet and streets nearly empty. But inside the Tabernacle Baptist Church, the pews were filled and the air rang with song. Six hundred people had gathered to celebrate a deliverance: Capt. Russell Sanborn, 27, a Marine Harrier pilot who was captured, beaten and imprisoned for nearly a month by Iraqi soldiers, had finally come home. Hale and fresh-faced, he stood near the altar with his wife, Linda, 28, and joined the choir in a heartfelt rendition of the hymn “Victory in Jesus.” After the ceremony—as men shook his hand, children clung to his sleeves and grandmothers kissed his cheeks—Russell’s dark memories were already fading. “I don’t want to forget the whole experience because of all the positive things that have come from it,” he says, “and how much it’s made Linda and me grow.”

Russell’s ordeal began on the afternoon of Feb. 9, when the five-year Marine veteran, who was sent to the gulf last December, made his 17th combat sortie. He was in a single-scat Harrier jet over southern Kuwait, dive-bombing Iraqi bunkers and artillery. The run was successful, but as he pulled away there was a loud bang; he had been hit by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile. The Harrier rolled hard left and nose down. Instantly, Russell grabbed the ejection handle. “I knew I had to get out,” he says. “I remember the canopy shattering away, the fire underneath the seat, the seat actually riding up the rail and me being ejected. Then I’m hanging in a parachute, just me alone, floating down. It was terrifying. I’d just dropped bombs on these people.”

Within 10 minutes after landing in the desert, Russell was surrounded by 15 armed and screaming Iraqi soldiers who stripped him of his pistol and took him to a nearby bunker. The man who had downed his jet came in to introduce himself. “I shoot you down,” he said in broken English. “I get two of you now.” Then he took Russell’s name tag as a souvenir and shook his hand. “It was kind of weird meeting the guy who wanted to kill you,” says Russell. The flier was later driven to what he now believes was Kuwait City, where Iraqi interrogators, trying to extract information on U.S. military intelligence, were considerably less polite. “They knew how to hit, how to inflict pain and just how much they could do before you were knocked out,” says Russell. After 24 hours the beatings stopped, and Russell was transferred to a dank 10-foot by 12-foot cell in a Baghdad prison, where four other Americans and three Britons were also held captive. Though they were fed only meager rations of watery gruel and stale bread and were prohibited from talking to each other, the POWs were not physically abused. One of the worst things was the nightly, incessant allied raids that showered bombs around the prison. “You felt so helpless,” says Russell. “So I started praying, ‘Hey, if a bomb is going to hit me, make it a clean shot, Lord.’ ”

Back in New Bern, Linda had no idea whether her husband would ever return. After his group commander and a chaplain from the U.S. Marine base at Cherry Point, N.C., informed heron Feb. 9 that Russell was missing in action, she was in a panic. Her close friend Vicki Nerad virtually moved in with her and on that first night slept beside Linda, who cried in her sleep. Linda stopped going to her job as a customer-service representative for a local tool manufacturer. And it fell to her to break the distressing news to her and Russell’s parents in Deland, Fla., where the couple had begun their courtship at Deland High School 10 years before. After a week her life resumed its normal routine, but hardly a moment passed without worry. “Every day, waking up, the questions would start running through my mind,” she says. “[But] I just hoped he was okay…. There were lots of times he lived on the edge and made it.”

Fortunately, his luck was still holding. On Feb. 28 an Iraqi guard told the prisoners the war was over; that night the bombing finally stopped. Five days later, after Russell was shaved and permitted to wash his flight uniform and exercise for the first time, he and the other POWs were put on a bus, where a woman informed them they were in the hands of the International Red Cross. But it wasn’t until the next morning, when they boarded a plane to Bahrain, that the POWs dared to believe they were truly free. “The first time we cheered was as we were coming up on the Saudi border and two American F-15s came alongside and told us we were crossing,” says Russell. ‘The plane just erupted.”

After receiving a hero’s welcome at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Russell spent five days at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where he received a clean bill of health. Given 30 days to recuperate before returning to duty, he is reveling in life’s simple pleasures—savoring Linda’s home-cooked Brunswick stew, walking their mutt, Fergie, and tabby cat. I lobo, and watching sunsets from the porch swing of the wood-frame home that he and Linda built two years ago. These days, neither can help but see a future bright and shining. “I think God has bigger and better things for Russell,” says Linda. “I’m thankful he chose Russell and brought him home—for whatever those things are.”

Paula Chin, Luchina Fisher in New Bern