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Consumer Reports

Former prisoner held by terrorists rebounds, rebuilds | (KRT) ROSE HILL, Kan. The simplest things whisk Gracia Burnham back to the jungle.

Most recently, it was picking up her daughter Mindy's backpack.

She felt the weight on her shoulder and, suddenly, she was back - back in the humidity, lugging her backpack up a mountain, her armed captors ordering "Faster! Faster!"

Just as quickly, she comes home.

"I told myself, `You don't have to carry this up a mountain, you have to carry it to the car,'" Gracia said. "Bad things can happen here during the day, but I'm just so happy because I'm not back there."

It's been almost a year since she was rescued from 376 days of cruelty at the hands of terrorists linked to al-Qaida.

Almost a year since her husband, Martin Burnham, collapsed at her side, shot to death during her rescue.

Now, after 11 months of mostly silence, she's telling their story in the book "In the Presence of My Enemies" ( TO PURCHASE, CLICK ON LINK) and granting interviews to reporters all over the world.

Last week, in an interview at the home built for her family by volunteers, she recalled the days, sick and hungry in the jungle, when she questioned G-d's love for her.

She reaffirmed her certainty that she'll someday reunite with her husband.

And she reveled in the simple pleasures of mothering Jeff, 16, Mindy, 13, and Zach, 12, as her eyes brimmed with tears.

"Going to their football games. Eating dinner together. I'm so grateful for the chance to do these things."

When she returned to Kansas, Gracia knew she wanted to tell Martin's story. But she promised herself that she'd tell it well.

She had more than a year's worth of memories to sort through, days filled with sickness, beheadings, bullets, explosions and prayer.

So she got a tape recorder and starting talking.

She began with their abduction May 27, 2001, by the Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf from the Philippines resort where they celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary.

She talked about walking at gunpoint through the jungle. Rarely bathing. Going days without food. Filipino soldiers firing aimlessly at both captors and hostages as they pursued the terrorists through the mountains.

She filled almost 40 tapes.

In the meantime, she recovered from a bullet wound to the leg that she suffered in the rescue.

Physical injuries weren't her biggest obstacles as she returned to a normal life, she says. Becoming a single parent for her children, planning their different activities, was harder.

As a hostage, she made no decisions. She ate, slept and went to the bathroom when allowed.

"One of the first decisions I had to make, I was sitting in the embassy and they asked if I wanted my family to come here or I wanted to go home.

"And I thought, you know, I haven't decided anything in over a year. I suddenly realized I was going to have to step back up and start deciding things."

She misses her husband every day, she says. But she's comforted by memories, late in their captivity, after she and Martin concluded that they would not go home alive.

"We told each other everything we had to say," Gracia says. "We said our goodbyes. There were no regrets between us."

In her book, she writes: "I reminded myself that, just like the other good-byes in my lifetime, this was temporary. I can't wait to see Martin again - and I will."

Still, she suffers bouts of sadness, usually when she's alone or listening to the radio.

"A James Taylor song will come on and that will make me really sad," she says. Taylor was one of her and Martin's favorite artists.

Her children are struck by memories, too.

Jeff, her oldest son, recently set five plates instead of four on the dinner table.

"It wasn't that it upset him," she says. "He said `Oh Mom, look what I did. I put one out for Dad.' We talked about it. He couldn't believe he did it."

They speak of Martin often, she says, especially during holidays and special occasions.

A large photograph of Martin - the one displayed at the memorial service that drew 2,500 mourners - hangs in the hall.

A picture of Martin with the airplane he flew in the Philippines, delivering medical supplies or groceries to remote tribes, rests on an end table.

The children show no signs of depression, she says. But reminders of their father keep popping up. Last week, a shipment of possessions arrived from their home in the Philippines.

Martin's tools were among them. Jeff took a day off from school to help unload them.

"He was having the best time, and I asked him if it made him sad," she says. "He said it didn't, he was just so happy to have these things of his father's."

Zach, the youngest, is the hardest to read. He was 10 when his parents were kidnapped.

Last weekend, an interview with Gracia aired on NBC's "Dateline." Everyone but Zach went downstairs to watch.

"He played video games," she says. "I just don't think he wanted to watch."

For days after Gracia returned to Rose Hill, the children slept on the floor around her bed.

If anything good came from what happened, she says, it's that she and the children realize how much they mean to one another.

"I think the kids and I love each other in a way that some parents and children might not because of everything we've been through together."

People always ask how she survived the miserable conditions the terrorists forced upon her.

Faith, of course, was a constant, she says. But as weeks turned into months, she began to question G-d's love.

"I got angry with G-d," she says. "It was Martin who said he hated to see me losing faith like this. I said I wasn't, but I was. You either believe all of it, or you don't believe any of it.

"He said, `You think through all the scriptures you know and a good majority say that G-d loves you.'

"That was good for me to hear. I made a conscious decision to believe that."

She also taught herself mind tricks to block out terror, particularly during firefights.

When surrounded by Filipino troops at a hospital in the village of Lamitan, one of her guards was shot in the eye.

He fell next to her, vomiting and bleeding, as gunfire exploded above Gracia's head.

"I just turned off my emotions," she says. "My mind was shutting down. I couldn't handle those things."

Exhaustion was a constant foe, as was hunger.

Most meals consisted of plain rice. Occasionally, a care package containing peanut butter or cookies arrived.

She and Martin were always amazed those packages, put together by friends, made it to them.

But they weren't enough. Martin saved wrappers from the occasional candy bar they received. On days with no food, he would smell the wrapper.

When they got access to pen and paper, they kept a journal. Gracia still has the papers, which were in a backpack returned to her by Filipino soldiers.

She keeps them in a folder, tucked away in a living room drawer.

On them are lists of places to take the children. Gracia even made a list of pies she wanted to bake - in the order she was going to bake them.

Other entries are sad, almost difficult to read. On a yellow sheet of paper dated May 10, 2002, Martin wrote:

"It's been a year today since I saw my children. I never thought it would come to this day. The kids are becoming young adults, and I've missed a lot of it. I'm praying that the Lord will give me a second chance to still be a father to those three precious gifts."

Seeing the children again became Martin and Gracia's motivation for staying alive.

Near the end, they discussed making a run for it. They'd probably get shot, but at least it would be over, they said.

But dreams of watching the Super Bowl with Jeff, shopping with Mindy and baking a birthday cake for Zach pushed that idea from their minds.

"We would lie together at night and imagine what the kids were doing," she says. "We hoped they were happy."

Although the rebels made their lives a nightmare, she and Martin bonded with some of their captors. The younger ones, whose ages ranged from 9 to 25, were friendly and treated them well.

Not long after Gracia was rescued, FBI agents came to see her with a photo line-up of Abu Sayyaf members.

She recognized a picture of one of her younger guards. The agents told her that he was dead.

"I started to cry," she says. "And they asked why I was crying, he was one of the terrorists.

"But we had lived with him for a year. We knew about his mom and his sister. And if I truly believe what I believe, then he's in hell right now."

A few decisions by Gracia and her family have raised eyebrows. But Gracia takes those reactions in stride.

The $330,000 ransom her family paid to the Abu Sayyaf caused some strain with the Burnhams' mission headquarters, Florida-based New Tribes Mission, Gracia says.

New Tribes, to which Martin's parents, Paul and Oreta, also belong, adheres to a no-ransom policy designed to discourage future kidnappings.

"I think New Tribes was upset that someone paid a ransom for us," she says. "And they thought it was Paul and Oreta who paid it, even though it was my side of the family."

Ultimately, the ransom was unsuccessful. The captors reasoned that if Gracia's family could pay that much, then surely they would pay more.

Paul and Oreta continue to have a good relationship with New Tribes and returned to their mission work in the Philippines last year.

Gracia keeps in close contact with the mission, which still sends out occasional updates on her to e-mail subscribers.

If she ever returns to mission work, it will be with New Tribes.

"I love those people," she says.

After Gracia was released, a woman she had never met wrote her a letter saying that she prayed for Martin and Gracia every day of their captivity.

But the woman was upset that Gracia "came out so happy" and was writing a book.

Now, the woman wrote, Gracia would make a lot of money and think she was better than everyone.

"All I have to say to her was `Well, what were you praying for?'" Gracia says. "That I would come out bitter and angry and not able to function? Maybe what you're seeing is a direct answer to your prayers."

A political ad she did for U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt during his campaign against Democratic challenger Carlos Nolla also drew complaints.

In December 2001, Tiahrt, saying he was frustrated with slow-moving rescue plans, met with U.S. diplomatic and Filipino military leaders in the Philippines.

In her book, Gracia recounts seeing a plane fly over on New Year's Eve. One of the rebels told her it was a Kansas dignitary who she later learned was Tiahrt.

In the television ad, Gracia described Tiahrt's efforts and thanked him.

"There were a few people who didn't like Todd Tiahrt," she says. "They didn't like him and didn't understand why I did something to support him.

"But, hey, he went to bat for me. I don't care who it would have been, I would have wanted to do something for him."

What's in Gracia Burnham's future? She isn't sure.

Gracia, 44, has created The Martin and Gracia Burnham Foundation to support missionaries worldwide.

Portions of book sales and speaking fees will go into the fund. The money will support mission aviation and tribal mission work around the world.

At some point, she hopes to return to the Philippines as a missionary. But not until Jeff, Mindy and Zach, who have friends here and love Kansas, are on their own.

They'll chose their own paths, she says. Jeff talks about the Air Force Academy, but could just as easily end up a jungle pilot like his father.

In a sense, you could say mission work led her and Martin to the Philippines, which led them to the anniversary at the resort, which led to their kidnapping.

She doesn't regret serving G-d - wherever He needs it - and encourages it in her children.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the kids end up back on the mission field - I would love that," she says. "A very ordinary person in this world can make a big difference. You just have to go do it."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services