March 18, 1991 12:00 PM

For 33 days they had lived in a netherworld, somewhere between doubt and despair. Only when the news came that Iraq was about to release 10 prisoners of war—one a woman—did Leo and Joan Rathbun begin to feel that it was finally safe to hope, and that Army Spec. 4 Melissa Rathbun-Nealy, their beloved only child, was still alive. That was on a Sunday, five days after the beginning of the gulf war cease-fire. At 4 the next morning, after 90 minutes of fitful sleep, they saw their faith turned to elation. Catapulted from bed by a friend’s phone call, they rushed to their television set, which was broadcasting pictures of the POWs marching out of Baghdad. “There she is! She looks so good!” shouted Leo hugging his wife and two family friends who were staying over. That night, the Rathbuns got the telephone call they had been waiting for. Realizing at once who was on the other end of the line, Joan let out a squeal—”like somebody stepped on a hamster.” Leo recalls—and an expectant crowd of friends and relatives gathered around the speakerphone to hear a small, quiet voice coming from half a world away. “Mom?” it said. “Mom, I’m free.”

They were the words an entire country had been longing to hear since Jan. 31, the day Melissa became the first U.S. servicewoman since World War II to be declared missing in action. Her disappearance, after her heavy flatbed truck had gotten stuck in the sand during a supply mission at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, had been deeply disturbing to anxious Americans already shaken by images of battered, dispirited male pilots being held in Iraqi captivity. Later, apprehension had turned to alarm. Had Melissa, if she were still alive, been the victim of rape or torture like so many Kuwaiti women? At 9:40 P.M. on Monday, March 4, the Rathbuns found out. Cheerfully, Melissa pronounced most of her Iraqi guards perfect hosts. “They were the nicest people,” she assured her parents. “They did all they could to make me comfortable. I’m probably the only POW who has ever gained weight.”

Despite Melissa’s startling tales of her captors’ faultless manners—”Some Iraqis told her that she was as brave as Sylvester Stallone and as beautiful as Brooke Shields,” says Leo—there were reminders of the anxiety that both parents and child had endured. Melissa, who spent most of her captivity in isolation in Baghdad, had passed the time by “reciting poems and singing songs she remembered from kindergarten on up,” says her mother. “The only time she was scared was during the allied bombing raids.” Meanwhile, the Rathbuns had managed to cope with uncertainty and droves of journalists by secluding themselves inside their three-bedroom home in rural Newaygo, Mich. (pop. 1,400), 30 miles north of the Grand Rapids neighborhood where Melissa was raised. Leo, a 59-year-old retired schoolteacher and former Catholic brother, and Joan, 55, an ex-nun, had been uncomfortable with their country’s decision to go to war and displeased with its decision to ship their daughter, recently divorced from fellow soldier Anthony Nealy, to the front. “I’m mad as hell they sent her over there in the first place,” says Leo. “She had had a miscarriage only two weeks before, and she was real depressed.” But they found comfort in prayer and in remembering that they had raised “a feisty little devil” who could handle herself in any situation. They were not surprised when Melissa told them after her release how she had stood up to an Iraqi soldier who threatened to beat her. “She said, “The only thing I fear is God—a man can hit me, but I would never submit,’ ” reports Leo proudly. With a twinkle in his eye, he notes that she added, “I guess that’s why the Army doesn’t like me.”

Now, of course, it might be hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Melissa Rathbun-Nealy. A typical high school student who joined the Army at 18 because her best friend and her sweetheart (with whom she later parted) had signed up, she is now a reluctant celebrity. “We told her she was a hero,” says Leo, “and she said, “I don’t know what I’m a hero about. I just got stuck in the sand.’ ” Nonetheless there are book and movie offers awaiting her. A tabloid newspaper calls periodically, offering $150,000 for Melissa’s story, and Leo brushes them off, joking, “When they hit $1 million, we’ll talk to them.”

Melissa, being 21—and being Melissa—is not sure what she will do next. Before her capture, she wrote her parents a letter in which she said she wanted to go to college, but now Joan and Leo wonder whether she may stay in the military. The former peace activists are learning to accept the possibility. “She’d make a good general,” says Joan. As for the immediate future, the Rathbun’s family plans are simple. “When we see her,” says Leo, “We’re going to give her a big hug for a long time.”

—Pat Freeman, Fannie Weinstein and Julie Greenwalt in Newaygo

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