The three Americans held hostage by Colombian guerrillas for 5 1/2 years endured months of enforced silence, nights chained at the neck and frequent grueling marches through the dense jungle.
The men recounted their ordeal in a lengthy interview Thursday with CNN at the Texas military base where they are recuperating.
"It was like somebody just released us from a tar pit," said Thomas Howes, 55.
Keith Stansell, 43, whose parents live in Bradenton, held up a heavy industrial lock as he described how the men spent much of their captivity chained to each other.
"That was put around my neck every night," Stansell said. "This lock, with five meters of chain — thick, 1-inch links — went to his neck," he said, pointing at Marc Gonsalves, 36, sitting next to him. "We slept like that."
The three civilian defense contractors were captured by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after their plane crashed in remote jungle terrain in February 2003. They were among 15 hostages rescued last week in a daring Colombian military operation that also freed former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and Colombian police and soldiers. Some had been held more than 10 years.
The worst moments came during their first year in captivity, when they endured a grueling 24-day march followed by eight months of enforced silence.
"We lost our voices," Stansell said. They managed to whisper to each other, though the captors threatened to separate them.
During that first year they were so cut off from the world they didn't even know the Iraq war had begun.
To avoid detection they were constantly forced to march, carrying their chains. They lived in a shack with a rats' nest above them and on the floors of peasant drug labs where coca leaves are ground into cocaine paste.
Howes produced a bullet he retrieved from the pistol of his jailer, and Gonsalves unfolded a chess set of cardboard and wood pieces he carved with a broken machete blade. Chess made all the difference in their lives.
"We're in chains, sitting Indian-style on a piece of plastic, just playing chess," Stansell said. "And when you're doing that, you're free — your mind is engaged, you are not a prisoner."
Stansell said of the FARC: "They chain people up like dogs in the name of a revolution. They don't recognize humanity; they don't recognize human rights. They're animals. They're terrorists."
Separation from their families was the hardest to endure, the men said.
Stansell was captured shortly after his Colombian girlfriend became pregnant with twins. For a while he feared one had died after a rebel guard said he had seen a photograph of the girlfriend with only one son. Then one day on the radio he heard "two little guys … sending me messages," he said.
It was on the radio that Stansell heard his girlfriend had accepted his marriage proposal, which he had smuggled out with a hostage who was released. She confirmed the engagement when they were reunited.
"This is a go, right?" Stansell recalled asking her. "That's it. This is our family," she replied.