Army Col. Leland Holland would sometimes talk about his 444-day hostage ordeal in Iran “like it was a good old fish story,” says his son, John. But other times, recalling how he was beaten with rubber hoses and telephone books, he’d get angry. The memory of picking a lock with a paper clip, making his way to the roof, and breathing fresh air could bring him to tears. Three times after he retired from active duty, his family found him kneeling in the corner of the basement, face to the wall, hands clasped together over his head as if handcuffed, reliving in his nightmares the ordeal of being interrogated.
Ben Affleck’s celebrated film, Argo, has spotlighted a desperate CIA scheme that enabled six U.S. Embassy employees to escape post-revolutionary Iran disguised as a Canadian film crew. Holland was part of a far less fortunate group, the 52 Americans who didn’t make it out of the embassy when militants stormed it on Nov. 4, 1979, and were held hostage for 444 days.
Argo has been showered with honors, topped by a best-picture Oscar at the Academy Awards. There’s no dispute that it is historically inaccurate and ignores a larger tragedy to focus on a tiny sliver of success associated with a humiliating chapter in the nation’s history. But give Argo its due. The film is serving to remind the country of a time, a place, and a debacle at what could be a pivotal moment in the history of the Iranian hostage crisis.
The former hostages and their advocates are mobilizing for a Capitol Hill push that they hope will be the final chapter in a 33-year quest for relief and for justice. In a few weeks, members of Congress will receive a packet of information that includes powerful statements and videos from the former hostages and their survivors. Some will be telling their stories publicly for the first time. One of them is Steven Lauterbach, whose written account opens with this sentence: “I slashed my wrists while in captivity in Iran.”
The hostages were among the first victims of Islamic terrorism -- yet unlike subsequent victims, they have never received the satisfaction of a court judgment against a state sponsor of terrorism, or financial compensation drawn from its assets. For decades they have tried and failed to navigate a web of conflicting legal opinions, court reversals, and changing terrorism policies. And for decades they have been thwarted by the 1981 Algiers Accords, in which Iran agreed to release the hostages and President Carter agreed to bar lawsuits by them and their families. One Congress after another has been unable or unwilling to surmount presidential administrations and court rulings that have kept the accords in force. The Supreme Court last year ended the possibility of suing under current law, leaving Congress to find a solution.
With its suspected march to nuclear weaponry and broad sponsorship of global terrorism, Iran presents America and the world with problems much deeper than how to tie up the loose ends of a 1980 crisis. Yet the dark details of their captivity and its long-term impact – the depression, the nightmares, flashbacks, divorces, and physical illnesses– are bound to add urgency to the former hostages’ cause, as is their advancing age (a dozen of the 52 have since died).
Nor does it hurt that the cinematic spotlight on Iran has coincided with two related tragedies. Argo opened a few weeks after murderous militants attacked another U.S. mission, this one in Benghazi, Libya, igniting intense concern on Capitol Hill about diplomatic security. The film opened the same month that one of the 52 former hostages, former CIA agent Phillip Ward, killed himself. He had returned home covered with scars from torture, a reclusive, alcoholic ruin who couldn’t hold a normal job -- who couldn’t even hold a cup of coffee, his hands shook so badly. “He took his life, but in reality his life was taken from him 33 years ago in Tehran, Iran,” attorney Tom Lankford, who has been trying since 2000 to win justice for the former hostages, wrote in a tribute to Ward in Roll Call last fall.
“Raped of Our Freedom”
Lankford has lived intimately for years with the disquieting tales of former hostages and their families, and punctuates his conversations with graphic images and details – the cells fouled with excrement, the diplomat’s wife who still has anxiety attacks, the retired Air Force colonel who in his nightmares hears the hoses being forced down the throats of Iranian political prisoners as they were suffocated outside his cell.
Most of the former hostages functioned well in productive careers after they returned – including Leland Holland, who died in 1990, and Tom Schaefer, the retired colonel who remains haunted by the suffocations. They and many others became public figures, giving speeches and media interviews about their experience. Yet few if any former hostages escaped life-altering changes wrought by 444 days of terror, boredom, hope, and hopelessness.