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20 Years after first Gulf war, former POW still surviving

By Ed Lavandera, CNN Correspondent
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Prisoner of war fighting new battle
  • Melissa Coleman spent 33 days as a prisoner of war during the first Gulf war
  • Now, Coleman faces another battle: breast cancer
  • Coleman: Being POW "helped me keep a positive outlook"
  • Iraq
  • War and Conflict
  • U.S. Army

San Antonio, Texas (CNN) -- Melissa Coleman has amazing stories to tell and some family members still can't get enough of the harrowing tales of her 33 days as a prisoner of war during the first Gulf war.

Even 20 years after the start of that war, Coleman can captivate an audience. She tells family friends or her daughters' classmates about American bombs that struck close to where she was held by her Iraqi captors.

"That was the biggest fear for me, I didn't think the Iraqis were going to kill me, but I was afraid of one of our bombs," Coleman tells CNN.

Or the story of how the Iraqi soldiers spared her the worst punishment because they were convinced she was an ignorant woman. She outsmarted them anyway.

"I played along with it," Coleman says. "I really don't know anything. I'm just a woman."

But 20 years after her 33 days as a POW, Coleman is fighting another battle: breast cancer. She was diagnosed five months ago and is preparing for a fourth round of chemotherapy.

Coleman says being a POW "helped me keep a positive outlook because I know what I can withstand." "I know that I've survived something as dangerous, if not more dangerous, so I feel like I'm going to make it."

Coleman says her doctors have removed all of the cancerous tumors for now and that she's been given a "good" prognosis.

The former Army specialist says she rarely thinks about her days as POW, but during those 33 days, Coleman was one of the most visible faces of the war.

Coleman was driving a truck on January 30, 1991, near the southern Iraq border. After a couple of confusing wrong turns, Coleman and another soldier riding alongside her found themselves in the middle of a firefight and surrounded by Iraqi soldiers.

Her parents, Leo and Joan Rathbun, held vigil from their home outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was an excruciating and painful wait.

Not knowing if she was still alive, the Rathbun's received a Valentine's Day card that she had mailed just hours before being captured. "When I first heard, I just sat by the TV and just cried the whole rest of the day. So, it was difficult," Leo Rathbun says.

But then came the 3 a.m. phone call that sent an eruption of joy through the Rathbun's home. A CNN producer called and told the family to turn on their television. For the first time in 33 days, the Rathbun's saw their daughter safe and alive being turned over by the Iraqis to the International Red Cross.

Looking back through the long lens of time, Coleman's parents say the POW experience changed their daughter in a fundamental way.

"She's a lot more serious about life and relationships now than what she was before," Joan Rathbun says. "Everyone means more to her. Life means more to her now."

Now she lives a quiet life in San Antonio with her husband and two teenage daughters.

Her oldest daughter, Briana, wants to join the Army and that's sparked a minor tug-of-war in the family. Coleman isn't comfortable with the idea, but Briana isn't giving up. The Coast Guard might be an acceptable compromise.

That's the kind of battle Coleman prefers these days, the struggles of raising teenagers and watching her girls prepare to venture out into the world.

"I'd like to be remembered for being a good mom," Coleman says. "I'd rather be remembered for that than being a prisoner-of-war."