SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — On March 2, Richard Peters called his wife, Katie, in Coeur d’Alene from the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
Peters, a 62-year-old former Navy SEAL, had been in Libya for two months trying to secure work as a contractor.
Escalating protests against Moammar Gadhafi were spreading through the country, and the brutal dictator was fighting back. Tripoli was awash in anti-American passions.
Peters told Katie he was getting out, possibly to find work with oil companies or to help train rebels in Benghazi. He hung up. It was the last time she would hear from him for months.
Peters packed and drove east, passing through several checkpoints fortified by soldiers and tanks. But finally, he was turned back. Officers followed and detained him, hauling him blindfolded back to Tripoli.
“Next thing I know, I’m in a jail cell,” Peters said.
Thus began nearly six months of mostly solitary captivity. And thus began a different kind of captivity for Katie Peters and their five children back home in Coeur d’Alene.
When the blindfold came off, Peters found himself in a tiny cell, 7-by-8 feet. Concrete and steel. A filthy mattress with a filthy blanket. Spiders and roaches.
He’d been in plenty of dicey situations before. As a SEAL, he fought in Vietnam, Grenada and Panama. Later, with his two Coeur d’Alene-based companies, Associated Construction Management and Global Security and Retrieval, he’d worked in Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime.
But he’d never been imprisoned.
He was immediately confronted by two fears: “The first fear was I’d never see my wife and children again,” he said. The second was that he would “stand before the Lord with nothing to give.”
Peters and his wife are devout Christians, members of North Country Chapel in Post Falls. He worried that he had been a poor witness for Christ, that he hadn’t spread the gospel as much as he could have. Still, Peters maintained an almost eerie positivity, bolstered by his training and his faith.
“It was OK,” he said. “I did OK. It wasn’t too hard.”
He said he was treated well by most guards, and the food was decent. He prayed and plotted escape. At 265 pounds, he started working to get back into shape. And he worried, more about his family than himself.
“They did not have a clue whether I was dead or alive,” he said.
Back home, Katie and their kids, ages 17 to 23 grew more concerned by the day. Over the years, she had always been in regular contact with Richard, though he was often overseas. Now, day after day passed with no contact.
“I knew something was terribly wrong,” she said.
About two weeks after Richard disappeared, Katie was sitting in church when, she said, she was moved to talk to her pastor about her fears. He put her in touch with a fellow member of the congregation with contacts in state government, and Katie began a relentless campaign to find out what happened to Richard, contacting everyone from her congressional representatives to the State Department to former SEAL teammates.
Katie won’t say much about this. But she said she was impressed by all the help she received through the course of several inquiries, trips to Washington, D.C., and a near-constant stream of emails and communications.
“I lived in front of my computer,” she said. “I lived in front of my phone.”
After two weeks, Peters was abruptly taken from his cell, blindfolded and handcuffed. Guards loaded him into a paddy wagon with six others. He was plotting ways to escape, pondering whether he could take out a guard, get his weapon, fight his way out, constantly working the angles.
They arrived at a large prison. When they emerged, Peters could see, through the bottom of his blindfold, a row of people blindfolded and kneeling, facing a wall.
“I thought, ‘Well, geez, they’re going to stinking assassinate us,’ ” he said. “I just started praying. I said, ‘Lord, you’ve got to help me here.’ ”
But no one was killed, and Peters was taken to a cell. This one was larger, with a pair of bunk beds, but the windows had been plated over. Only by climbing to the highest window and peering through a crack could he see anything of the outside courtyard.
Over the next months the guards would interrogate him six times, once for 10 hours. They knew about his special-forces background, and they suspected him of being a rebel spy. They never really hurt him, he said, though they kicked him a couple times. He was less than intimidated.
“They tried to crack me, and it was kind of funny,” he said. “They told me I was a spy, spy, spy.”
He didn’t know what was happening outside. Across Libya, citizen rebels were taking up arms against Gadhafi, and after weeks of escalating protests and violence, the ruler’s forces were mounting a massive counteroffensive. NATO forces had begun airstrikes. Inside, Peters was praying, exercising, keeping an eye out for an escape route, worrying about his family. He ate meals of warmed rice or noodles twice a day. He asked his guards to let him have his Bible back, but his hopes weren’t high.
One night, about 40 days into his captivity, he was pacing his cell after dinner.
“I go, ‘Lord, it sure would be nice to have a Bible’ ” he said. “As I said the word ‘Bible,’ the big steel door opened and this guy walked in with my Bible.”
By April, Katie Peters had learned there was “a strong possibility” Richard was alive but imprisoned. She kept up on the news, but avoided TV, especially during the airstrikes. She’d learned that over the years, as Richard worked in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You don’t watch,” she said. “Read, but don’t watch.”
She told few people what was happening. Richard’s military and business backgrounds had often required confidentiality, and Katie has a wariness of publicity and a private nature.
On July 2, her phone rang at 4 in the morning. It went to voicemail before she answered.
“It was a Libyan phone number,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my Gosh, oh no.’ ”
The message was from Richard, saying he’d lost 60 or 70 pounds, was praying, reading the Bible, staying strong, “and that he missed me, and that was it,” Katie said.
She called the number back three times — nothing. Her phone rang again — she answered, nothing. It rang again — again nothing. Ten minutes passed, it rang again.
“It was Richard, and it was him live,” she said, her voice breaking.
A guard had let him use the phone briefly, hoping they might use it against him in some way. He told her the same things he’d said in his message.
“All I could say back to him was, ‘Honey, I love you and I miss you,’ ” she said. “And they took the phone.”
At the prison in Tripoli, as July stretched into August, Richard Peters’ captors were growing aggravated. He said he found it easy to resist their efforts to get him to say he was a “spy” for anti-Gadhafi rebels as a former special forces guy, he was tough and smart, and he kept a positive attitude, though they sometimes questioned him for hours.
At one point, he said, they tried to use his background against him and accused him of being a “human frog” a mangling of the term frogman. He says he laughed, angering them further.
Meanwhile, Peters had managed to contact people on either side of his cell. They could whisper back and forth through the electrical sockets. Peters spoke to a Spanish prisoner he called Johnny Bravo on one side, and two journalists on the other side.
“What I’m doing, I’m talking to them about the Lord,” he said, voice rising in excitement. “I brought Johnny Bravo to the Lord through that 220-volt socket in prison in Tripoli.”
Despite the hardship, Peters experienced something exhilarating.
“I read my Bible, I prayed, I walked with God it was incredible,” he said.
He did pull-ups on the window ledge, and jogged as quietly as he could, so the guards didn’t hear him around the tiny room, trying to keep his strength up despite the fact that the guards were starting to cut his diet. By early August, all he was getting to eat were a few dates and a warm carton of milk twice a day.
Meanwhile, the rebels and NATO forces were defeating Gadhafi’s troops all over the country. They were surrounding the capital, and closing in.
Back home in Coeur d’Alene, Katie Peters was preparing for her 22-year-old daughter’s wedding on Aug. 20. She had filed numerous congressional inquiries, made contacts in various government departments, traveled to the nation’s capital all in an effort to find out what was happening with her husband and get him help.
Though the government had little ability to investigate the situation in the midst of the war, she said she was “absolutely” impressed at the attention and effort she received at every turn. She knew her husband was alive, and she believed that, with his SEAL training and his faith, he was prepared. She didn’t want to postpone the wedding or put their lives on hold.
Her daughter was married in a “beautiful, wonderful” ceremony in Sandpoint, Katie said. Her sons walked her daughter down the aisle, and some of the tables were bedecked with photos of Richard and yellow roses.
“It totally changed the color scheme of my daughter’s wedding,” Katie said.
The day of the wedding, in his cell in Tripoli, Richard heard a commotion outside. He climbed up to the high window, peered out. Guards were rushing from the prison. He didn’t know it, but the rebels and NATO forces had reached Tripoli and were beginning the battle that would bring down Gadhafi.
After about 10 minutes, he started pounding on the door. Nothing.
“I go, ‘Man, there’s nobody here,’ ” he said.
He started kicking at the door a steel door with a steel frame. He kicked and kicked, until he saw that the frame was separating from the wall. Eventually, he knocked out the whole works.
” ‘Thank you, Lord, for poor construction,’ ” he said.
He helped a few other prisoners get out, but most of the prison had been emptied. “Who knows what happened to everybody, but it probably wasn’t good,” he said.
He made his way to an abandoned government building and hid. The city was in chaos and he wasn’t sure what was happening. He grabbed a length of pipe and prepared to use it as a weapon. He found a can of beans and a warm half of a 7-Up.
“I thought that was pretty good,” he said. ” ‘This ain’t too bad, Lord.’ ”
A group of rebels came into the building, and Peters prepared for a fight. But soon, it became apparent they were on the same side one of the men pointed to a poster of Gadhafi and said, “Gadhafi, no good,” and Peters repeated it back eagerly. Eventually, one of the men took Peters home and fed him.
It was over. He was out.
“It was stinking unbelievable,” he said.
The day after the wedding, Katie Peters went to church, as she does every Sunday. After the service, she turned her phone back on. She had three messages from Libya.
“It was Richard,” she said, “and he had escaped.”
She sat in her car in the parking lot of the Post Falls church her spiritual anchor and she and her sons talked to her husband for nearly two hours, their first real conversation in almost six months.
“There really aren’t words to describe it,” she said this week, sitting at the coffee shop at the same church were that conversation occurred less than a month before. “It’s a story of miracle after miracle after miracle.”
For now, that will have to stand as their reunion. Richard stayed with the Libyan family for a couple of weeks. He’d lost 80 pounds, so much that he barely recognized himself when he looked in a mirror.
He is still working to get contracts in Libya instead of working with an arm of the Gadhafi regime, he’s working with the transitional government. He says he was inspired by the rebel uprising, by the way that untrained civilians rose up and defeated a brutal regime, and he wants to help in the rebuilding.
“I really wanted to come home,” he said. “I wanted to see my wife and kids, but they understand. There’s a real need here.”
Katie said she understands what he’s doing. “Do I want him home?” she said. “I wanted him here six months ago, seven months ago. But can I tell you something? I totally support him in his decisions.”
Despite the hardship of the past six months, the Peterses seem exhilarated. Thrilled. Joyous about what they see as the hand of God at every turn.
“Richard and I did a study on the book of Job last year,” Katie said then laughs.
A lot of people forget that the story of Job has a happy ending: “And the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends; also, the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.”
The Peterses say that’s how they feel.
“I came out of it stronger than I went in there,” Richard said. “That’s the power of the Lord. All my strength came from Him.”
Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com