LINTHICUM, Md. — An American writer who went missing in Libya for months returned to the United States on Saturday night, telling reporters he went to the north African nation to participate in the uprising against dictator Moammar Gadhafi and was on a reconnaissance mission when he was captured.
But Matthew VanDyke, 32, said his mother and girlfriend didn't know when he set off from Baltimore for Libya that his goal was to support the revolution.
"You don't tell your mother that you're going to go fight in a war," he said. "When I got out of (a Libyan) prison, I was going to finish what I came to do. So the past several weeks I've been in combat on the front lines in Sirte fighting Gadhafi's forces."
VanDyke, dressed in his military uniform with a scarf tied around his head, held up a Libyan flag as he walked out of the concourse at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport into his mother's arms. He was also met by friends and family waving American flags and holding up signs. Some had waited for hours after he was detained by Homeland Security officials when he entered the country in New York and missed his flight to Baltimore.
Later, as VanDyke addressed the media, his girlfriend, Lauren Fischer, arrived and planted a big kiss on his lips. The two stood hand in hand for the rest of the time he spoke.
Earlier this year, VanDyke was in Baltimore working on a book and film about a motorcycle trip across the Middle East and southeast Asia when he began to hear from friends in Libya about their relatives disappearing.
"I wasn't going to sit back and let this happen to people I care about and not do anything about it," he said. "I see how people are suffering under regimes like this and it's time for it to end."
VanDyke said he was on a reconnaissance mission in Brega with three other fighters with weapons in a truck when he was captured by Gadhafi forces. He was questioned once, he said.
VanDyke spent more than five months in solitary confinement in Libyan prisons. He said he sang Guns n' Roses songs to himself and tried to name all of the "Star Trek" characters to pass the time. He said he also suffered from the psychological effects of solitary confinement.
Fischer and VanDyke's mother, Sharon, held strong to their belief that VanDyke would return. Sharon VanDyke even traveled to Turkey with photos of her son in hopes of speaking to Libyan diplomats in hopes they could work to free him.
The two women enlisted U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersburger, a Maryland Democrat and ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, who held a news conference in May to call attention to the situation. Libyan officials initially denied VanDyke was being held, but in July they acknowledged he was in custody.
When the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli was bombed in August, fellow prisoners broke open VanDyke's cell and he escaped. The fleeing prisoners made their way to a compound, where he was able to borrow a phone to call home.
He was pressured — by Fischer, the State Department and Human Rights Watch — to return home, but he wanted to finish what he went to Libya to do.
"I felt appreciative that they spent time and resources to try to help me and by keeping my story alive they did prevent the regime from executing me and I'm very grateful for that," he said. "If they had actually gotten me released then, yes, I probably would have come home. I broke out and I ran for my life with other prisoners. I freed myself and I come home when I wanted."
He said everything he did was on the side of U.S. policy and in keeping with the ideals of the United States.
It was tough for Fischer to learn that he had planned from the beginning to fight in the revolution, she said.
"I knew that he went there to help his friends, not to fight, but to help his friends," she said. "It was not what I thought, but especially after five and a half months of not even knowing for sure where he was, I thought that was what was really more important to me was knowing that he was safe and OK."
Publicly, VanDyke said that he'd remain in Libya until Gadhafi fell from power and that he wanted to look for friends who might have been captured or killed in the fighting. He said he didn't want to stir up controversy over an American fighter in the middle of the fight. Then he formally joined the Ali Hassan al-Jaber Brigade of the National Liberation Army of Libya. He displayed an identity card and award he said he was given to him by his commander.
Gadhafi was captured and killed last month. VanDyke went to Tripoli for the celebrations and felt that he could return home.
"It's good to be home. I'm glad to be home," he said. "I'm glad that the job was finished. I wasn't going to leave until Gadhafi was out of power. He's gone, so I'm home."
Sharon VanDyke was happy to have her son back.
"A lot of time of his life has been given to another country. I know Libyans appreciate it," she said. "I'm very proud of that he followed his commitment. I never once tried to make him come home. I told him all along that I would support his decisions."
Matthew VanDyke plans to go to church Sunday morning and spend time with his mother and girlfriend now that he is back. But then he might start training for other revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world.
"There's a lot more to be done" he said. "This is spreading."
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