Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann, a 22-year-old Marine charged with guarding the embassy door, was one of the youngest in the group. For the first month in captivity, he says, he was forced to sleep with his wrists tied to his ankles; his hands and feet were tied to a chair during the day, a shotgun pointed at his head. He was blindfolded whenever he was moved. “You think of your past. That’s all you had,” he recalls. He heard cars beeping, birds chirping, “life going on without you,” and wondered if anyone besides his parents cared. “It was so lonely,” he says.
And often so terrifying. Sickmann says he and other hostages were shown videos of people being dropped in boiling tar, of people shot in the head after being ordered to strip and face a courtyard wall. And then he was blindfolded and told to undress and turn his back, and he heard three rifles bolted behind his head. “It was a mock execution, but I didn’t know that,” he says. “You dreamt, you cried, you prayed for the opportunity of a second chance.”
“It’s never completely in the past. You’re always in the shadow of it, psychologically.”—Steven Lauterbach, former embassy officer
Sickmann did get that chance. When he came home, he found that his parents had kept their 1979 Christmas tree up and decorated for the whole 444 days. He married his girlfriend and went to work at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis. He had three children and rose through the company, where he now has what he calls a “wonderful job” as director of military sales. Through a chance meeting at a family wedding, Sickmann even ended up on the set of Argo, and his son had a bit part.
Despite flashbacks, dreams, and problems with noises and being alone, Sickmann was convinced he was fine. But his wife thought otherwise, and after many years she persuaded him to get help. “You never forget it,” he now says of his captivity. He repeatedly says Iran “raped us of our freedom” and has never paid for it in any way. Sickmann often wonders, even now, if he should have disobeyed orders and shot at the militants and the women who were their human shields.
Lauterbach, a slight man who was the assistant general-services officer at the embassy, had no experience or training as a soldier or spy when he was taken hostage. “It was my first time as a Foreign Service officer. I didn’t volunteer for it,” he says. Tehran was a menacing environment, with crowds on the streets and bodies hanging from construction cranes, just like in Argo, he says. Looking back at the time he slashed his wrists, he says, “It’s hard for me to really know what my motive was.” His plan was to “hurt myself bad enough that they would panic” and take him out of solitary confinement. He was covered with blood and prepared to die, he says, but his captors rushed him to the hospital for stitches. And they did take him out of solitary.
Now 61, Lauterbach was 28 when he was captured; he says the experience left him “more mentally and emotionally damaged than I wanted to admit.” He met his wife at his next posting in France, had two children, pursued a successful Foreign Service career, and now consults for the State Department. Yet he has a recurring nightmare that “somehow the agreement to release us has been rescinded and we have to go back.” He believes he is a more pessimistic, fatalistic person as a result of the ordeal. “It’s never completely in the past,” he says. “You’re always in the shadow of it, psychologically.”
Bill Daugherty’s captors quickly identified him as a CIA operative and treated him accordingly. He spent 425 of his 444 days in solitary confinement, and he endured interrogation sessions 12 hours long. Unlike some of the others, he was used to risk and adversity. At 31, his résumé included military school, Marine boot camp, flight school, a stint as an air-traffic controller, and a tour flying off an aircraft carrier in Vietnam. “My whole life up to that time was dealing with stress,” he says. He also had received military training in how to survive in captivity and how to defeat interrogators.
Like Sickmann and Lauterbach, Daugherty believed he was in good shape after his release. He says he never had nightmares or other symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Yet he was troubled. His cover was blown—he was known worldwide to be CIA—and he stumbled about trying to find a new career path. In his personal life, he says, he felt lost and “addled” at times. In 1986, Daugherty entered what he calls an “unwise marriage” that ended in divorce. He also made some bad career choices before landing in the CIA’s counterterrorism unit. In 1996, he became a college professor, and a few years later met the nurse practitioner who is now his wife.
“I didn’t start understanding what I wanted and what my life should be until 12 to 15 years” after returning from Iran, says Daugherty, who worked as a consultant on Argo. “If I came back in better mental shape than a lot of [the other hostages], I can’t imagine how they dealt with it.”