SIKESTON - While many are watching news of prisoners of war in Iraq with concern, for Joe Werts, general manager at the Malone Avenue Grill in Sikeston, it is a little closer to home.
From June-December 2002, Werts was flying over the same region on patrol and reconnaissance missions for the U.S. Navy.
"I was deployed over to Diego Garcia. That's a British Territory, a real small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean," Werts said. "I was flying over Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. We did some detachments to Singapore and Thailand as well."
"When I heard about the POWs I was hoping it wasn't any of my friends," he added. "Thank God it turned out not to be."
Werts made the flights as a part of the 11-man crew on a P-3 Orion. "My job was an aviation warfare systems operator, second class," said Werts. "I was an acoustic operator - I listened to the water via sono buoys."
While the P-3 Orions are usually submarine hunters, during this time period his squadron was assigned to do patrol and reconnaissance.
"My actual separation was supposed to be Sept. 11," Werts said. Being an important part of his team, leaving would have meant down time for his crew. "So I volunteered for another six months so we could continue our missions."
Werts said the plane he crewed for is the same kind of plane that was forced down by a Chinese fighter plane in 2001.
"We did a couple of missions like that before they did," Werts recalled, and remembered seeing the very same Chinese fighter pilot responsible for that incident flying on their wing during some of his missions. "It was very standard for them to intercept us all the time."
Like all Navy SEALs and airmen, Werts went through two weeks of Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape training, and can empathize with those who were actually taken prisoner recently.
"It gives you a pretty good perspective on what those guys are going through," he said. "It's really specialized. They treat you like a POW for a couple days."
The training is only offered for high-risk positions, however. "They took a lot of ground troops that didn't have that training," said Werts.
And while the war continues, so does Werts' concern.
"I can't wait till my friends get back and I know they're safe," said Werts. "I can't wait till this thing is over so we can get back to normal living."