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Secretary of the Army Pays Christmas Visit To Soldiers Wounded In Panama

December 25, 1989

SAN ANTONIO (AP) _ Wounded soldiers told of being hit by gunfire in Panamanian darkness and expressed delight at Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega’s surrender as Army Secretary Michael P.W. Stone visited them Monday.

″I feel glad that the beast is in chains,″ Army Staff Sgt. Terence Merlo said of Noriega, the deposed Panamanian dictator, as Stone made his way around Wilford Hall Medical Center. Merlo was wounded in the abdomen.

So far 250 soldiers, including 15 on Monday, have been brought to San Antonio after being injured in Panama. Three died en route and one died after arrival.

Dozens have been returned to home bases or discharged, leaving 52 at Wilford Hall and 34 at Brooke Army Medical Center on Christmas Day.

″Good luck to you all and thank you very much for everything you have done,″ Stone said to the soldiers. He handed out Army medallions as gifts.

Stone said he and his wife had been in Panama just days before fighting broke out.

″There was really an apprehension that something was going to happen, and of course it did about a week after we were there,″ he said.

Stone later visited wounded Army soldiers at Brooke.

Family members visiting Merlo, 40, of Jacksonville, Ala., sat near his bed. He told Stone that he and fellow military police officer Spec. Robert Cuschleg of Columbus, Ohio, - who was in the next hospital bed - were ambushed by an unseen enemy in the darkness the first day of the U.S. attack.

Merlo told reporters he believes that Noriega’s surrender to the Vatican Embassy means it could delay his being brought to justice.

″I’m not sure that it was the best place for him to turn himself in for us to get gratification and achieve our ends,″ Merlo said.

Pfc. Mike Heyne, 21, of Ashland, Ohio, said he hoped Noriega’s move would allow American troops to come home soon.

″I’m glad he did it this early,″ said Heyne, who was injured by mortar fire.

A small jar containing some shrapnel doctors removed from his waist sat next to his bed. Heyne said he planned to keep it as a souvenir.

Soldiers read newspapers reporting Noriega’s surrender and displayed Purple Hearts on their pillows or pajamas. Christmas cards, flowers and gifts were on view throughout the Air Force hospital.

Relatives exchanged gifts with the soldiers and some attended two Christmas Day worship services.

Among those visiting Staff Sgt. Walter Thompson of Enterprise, Ala., who was shot in the left arm, were his wife Barbara Thompson, his mother, some cousins and a friend.

″I began to cry, because I knew he was OK,″ Mrs. Thompson said, her voice choked with emotion, of the moment she first saw her husband Saturday at Wilford Hall.

Thompson said he kept going after he was struck, ″I was still fighting. I didn’t stop.″

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