- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

American hostage Gracia Burnham was reunited Monday with her three children in Kansas City without her missionary husband, who was killed last Friday in the firefight during the "accidental" rescue operation by the Philippine military. The tale she will have to tell her children about the one-year nightmare in which she was kidnapped by the Muslim extremist group Abu Sayyaf during an anniversary weekend with her husband, subjected to tropical diseases, hunger and seeing the other 19 hostages freed or killed must be horrific.

The question is, where were the American forces during all of this? Political constraints imposed on U.S. troops by the Philippine government have been blamed for the lack of an American presence in the rescue operation. It is unfortunate that Martin Burnham, and an American who was beheaded while in captivity, had to be the casualties of Philippine law, which barred American troops from acting.

When the United States was engaged in combat in Afghanistan last year, there was no end to the publicity about America's role in rescuing its hostages there. Three U.S. helicopters swooped down on American aid workers Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry and rescued them after more than 100 days in captivity by the Taliban. Granted, it may be harder to find hostages on an island covered with rugged jungle than it was to find the young women who lit their headscarves on fire to wave the rescue helicopters down in Afghanistan. But there reportedly are fewer than 100 Abu Sayyaf rebels on the tiny Philippine island of Basilan and yet rescuing the hostages was not a priority.

The primary problem is, of course, that the United States is engaged in military action in Afghanistan, but is in the Philippines only by invitation of the government. Unfortunately for the hostages, that made all the difference.

There are currently about 1,000 Green Berets, pilots, engineers and support staff working in the southern Philippines as part of a six-month mission to train local troops. Americans, however, were prohibited from carrying out rescue operations. "Our job is to advise and assist the Philippine forces, and if we get the Burnhams, that's great, but it's not our focus," Maj. Les Brown, an Army Special Forces commander on Basilan, told the New York Times. It certainly sounds as though some hostages are worth rescuing more than others.

When a U.S.-trained Philippine combat unit stumbled across the Abu Sayyaf camp last Friday, the result was that the last three hostages still living in the guerrilla group's captivity were all casualties. Two were killed and Mrs. Burnham was shot in the leg. That's not a great ratio.

The Burnhams' story should serve as a reminder that the life of every American citizen is worth rescuing not just the ones who make CNN prime time.

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