Branch/Rank: United States Army/Specialist
Unit: B Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry of the 1st Infantry Division, stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany.
Date of Birth: 1978 - 21 yrs old
Home City of Record: Huntsville, TX
Date of Loss: 31 March 1999
Country of Loss: Macedonia/Serbia Yugoslavia border
Loss Coordinates: last reported on a civilian road in Kumanovo, about 10 miles (16 km) from Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, and less than 3 miles (5 km) from the Kosovo border.
Status: DETAINEE changed to POW 04/01/99
Mission: Peacekeeping and observation mission near Macedonia's border with Kosovo
Other Personnel in Incident: Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez; Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone
Source: Compiled by the Last Firebase Veterans Archives Project from one or more of the following: raw data from US Government agency sources, correspondence with POW/MIA families, published sources, interviews.
SYNOPSIS: On Thursday, April 1, 1999, Yugoslav authorities paraded three grim-faced and bruised American soldiers on Serbian television. The soldiers had been captured the day before near the Macedonian border.
The men were identified as Specialist Steven Gonzales, Staff Sergeant Christopher Stone and Staff Sergeant Andrew Ramirez.
All three soldiers were assigned to B Troop, 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry of the 1st Infantry Division, stationed in Schweinfurt, Germany. The soldiers disappeared after reporting they had been surrounded and had come under small arms fire. NATO forces and Macedonian police units immediately began searching for the missing three-man patrol.
When captured, the Americans were operating as part of a NATO force put in place "conducting a peacekeeping and observation mission" near Macedonia's border with Kosovo, which is a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
Comments made by the American captives, while on television were censored by the Yugoslavian government. But a lip reader told London's Mirror that Spec. Gonzales had said "To everyone at home, I'm real fit, and I want to get out of this prison." S/Sgt. Stone, his face smeared with blood, said, I'm not making any comment at all because I don't feel safe. I feel a bit sick about it all." The third captive, S/Sgt. Ramirez said nothing.
Immediately after the three Americans were shown on TV, there was debate about their legal status. United States officials first carefully avoided calling the soldiers POWs. They claimed the prisoners had been illegally abducted and demanded their immediate release.
Yugoslav authorities insisted the three were not POWs. They claimed the Americans had been captured on the Yugoslavian side of the border. Lawyers in Yugoslavia speculated the men could be charged with "waging aggression," which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years, or "espionage," which has a maximum penalty of 20 years.
Yugoslav officials said they intended to try the American soldiers as criminals.
The International Committee of the Red Cross quickly moved declaring that the captives did qualify as POWs under the Geneva Convention treaty.
"For us it is very clear. There is an international armed conflict between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and these three captured soldiers are ... prisoners of war," ICRC spokeswoman Doris Pfister said.
Yugoslavia later signaled a retraction when its foreign minister, Zivadin Jovanovic, referred to the American captives as prisoners of war, a term that carries with it protected status under the treaty. Washington also changed position and began referring to the men as POWs.
The 1949 Geneva Convention was one of a series of international humanitarian treaties dating back to 1864. Terms of the treaty apply in cases of "armed conflict" as well as when war has been declared. Those terms dictate that captured soldiers must at all times be humanely treated and protected from abuse and public humiliation. They cannot be put on trial for engaging in ordinary acts of warfare for which the capturing country's own soldiers would not be charged.
"They can be tried if they are accused of war crimes or if they are accused of any crime which is linked to domestic law," Pfister said. "But what is important is that the fact of being on a mission for the American army is not a reason to try them."
Pfister said there also has been debate about whether showing the men on Yugoslav television violated a section of the convention that protects them from "insults and public curiosity," but the legal interpretation of the article was not clear.
The most important thing, Pfister said, is to have access to the soldiers and to see that they are being well-treated. The ICRC has asked Belgrade for unsupervised visits with the soldiers, but has so far received no reply.
By April 6, Yugoslavia had reversed its position and assured the international press that the American POWs would not be tried and would be released at the end of hostilities.
That same day, the Yugoslav leadership declared a "unilateral ceasefire" in honor of "the greatest Orthodox holiday, Easter." The Yugoslavians pledged to work on a settlement to the crisis which would allow the ethnic Albanian refugees to return to Kosovo.
The Clinton White House rejected the ceasefire saying it was not interested in "hollow gestures."
U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said the Serb ceasefire idea was "not only completely unacceptable but absurd."
At the same time, Spyros Kyprianou, a Greek who is the parliament speaker on the Mediterranean island Cyprus, announced that he would travel to Yugoslovia to secure the release of the three American prisoners.
Kyprianou suggested that NATO should observe a ceasefire over the Orthodox Easter holiday, if Yugoslavia would agree to free the three American servicemen.
NATO refused the offer.
On April 9, Kyprianou announced that the three U.S. POWs would not be returned home early. His talks in Belgrade to secure their release had failed.
The Cypriot envoy complained that within hours of his arrival in Belgrade, NATO intensified the bombing all around the Yugoslavian capital.
"It was expected that during my stay at least some respect should have been shown and some understanding until I had finished my consultations," he said.
The Clinton administration responded by saying Mr. Kyprianou's failure was not a surprise.
The Yugoslavians have now hardened their position saying that the POWs will not be released until the war is settled.
Gonzales graduated with honors from Palestine High School in 1995. "There was never any doubt in my mind he would go places," Palestine biology teacher Karen Stroud told The Dallas Morning News. "He had a lot on the ball. I can't think of a teacher here in the honors program who would have a negative thing to say about him."
He joined the Army while studying science at Texas A&M University. Gonzales had always wanted to be a Army Ranger and is described as being made of "sterner stuff" and "well disciplined, capable of handling any situation."
Gonzales' parents are both employed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He has two younger brothers ages thirteen and eight.
His parents were not thrilled when he left school to join the Army.
"We went back and forth on that, because we were kind of opposed to it," Ms. Gonzales said of her son's decision to enlist. "Of course, he had made his decision to go ahead and join. A big thing he was thinking about was the opportunity to travel.
"He felt he would acquire experiences that he would not otherwise."
The Gonzaleses made a plea to the world through a news conference in downtown Huntsville, Texas, a day after seeing their son's bruised and battered face on national television. They asked for the nation's prayers and appealed to Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic to give them back their son.
"We've always been so proud of Steven," his mother said. "He's always exceeded our expectations of him. Throughout school, he has just excelled. Everything he takes on, he's always excelled.
"He's a very true Christian. He has strong faith. Being a strong person, possibly even stronger than we are, I think he's probably dealing with it pretty well, considering."
Seeing him on TV was "a bittersweet relief," Mr. Gonzales said. "You see that he's alive and blinking his eyes. But you don't know what's going to happen."
"All we can do is just wait and hope that everything turns out right," Mr. Gonzales told the press. "We have to put our faith in God.
"We're praying for everybody's safe return," he added. "Hopefully, the thing gets resolved as quickly as possible. I know the other families are hoping for the same thing."
Fighting back tears as she nervously twisted a lock of honey blond hair, Mrs. Gonzales said: "Steven and those other two soldiers don't deserve this."
She said they had discussed Steven's plight with their two other sons . The older boy, Ms. Gonzales said, grasps the severity of the situation, but neither of the boys had talked much about it.
Ms. Gonzales said she was confident that the United States and NATO would retaliate forcefully if the Serbs further harmed the captives.