German, a State Department budget officer, had arrived in Tehran five weeks before the embassy takeover. His family learned of his abduction from a church member who saw news of it on TV.
In censored letters every couple of weeks, he urged his daughter and two sons to keep sending him mail, keep praying, and keep doing their schoolwork. Once he wrote that he was “staying at the lovely resort of Lorton,” recalls the daughter, Deborah Firestone. “So we knew he was in a prison.” When he did come home, he didn’t talk to his children about what he’d been through, but “I heard things,” Firestone says, including that his Iranian captors had played Russian roulette with him.
German, now 76, describes “constant threat” from the day he was taken captive. “We didn’t know from day to day if it was our last day because they kept threatening us with guns,” he says. He recalls the hostages being forced awake at 3 a.m., blindfolded, and “paraded in our underwear into a cold hallway,” where they would hear the “unmistakable” sound of guns being cocked, and wonder if they were about to be executed. Outside his cell at the notorious Evin prison, German heard “moaning and screaming and carrying on” as Iranians were tortured. Prayer and mental toughness got him through, German says.
While Firestone says German had flashbacks and nightmares after his release, German says he chose not to the see “the shrinks” offered by the government. “I didn’t need that,” he says. He did make what he calls changes “for the better” after conversations with friends. “I just took their advice and decided to get on with my life, move ahead, and that I’d try not to look back. So I don’t dwell on that at all anymore,” he says. “I just put the hostage crisis behind me.”
German’s life is divided into distinct pre-Iran and post-Iran chapters. Within a year of his return, he moved away from his family. Within a few years, he had divorced his wife and left the State Department. He moved to rural northeastern Pennsylvania and reconnected with a woman he knew in high school. He has little contact with his children and grandchildren, a subject he declines to discuss.
Before the Iran crisis, says Firestone, an elementary school teacher, her parents’ marriage was “rock-solid” and she was a “daddy’s girl.” But since a few months of family closeness right after he returned, she says, contact with her father has increasingly ebbed. He missed her college graduation, her 1993 wedding, and her brother’s wedding last summer. At this point, she hasn’t seen him for eight years. He last saw her youngest child, almost 12, when she was 3.
While it’s impossible to gauge the role of German’s captivity on his choices, Firestone has no doubts. “He’s pretty much fallen off the face of the earth as far as his family is concerned,” she says. “Our lives have been irreparably damaged because of what happened.”
Hero and Victim
Fresh off 444 days as victims, the hostages returned to a nation that was more than ready to move on from nightly doses of America Held Hostage. They were celebrated as heroes with a full-blown ticker tape parade in New York – the kind usually reserved for astronauts, military veterans, and champion sports teams. Ronald Reagan had just taken the oath of office. People desperately wanted it to be a new morning in America, as Reagan’s reelection campaign would put it in a TV ad four years later.
“We had been so embarrassed by the Iranians holding power over us,” says Lankford. “We didn’t want to hear about how the hostages were kept in freezers with no clothes on, kept in cells with their own excrement. America in 1981 needed heroes, and these folks as a group were presented as heroes. It was really in many respects to wash away the bad feeling of Vietnam. Heroes you give medals to. You don’t compensate them.”
In truth, each hostage was both a hero and a victim, a dual identity epitomized by Leland Holland. He was an Army intelligence officer in Berlin during the Cold War, served two tours in Vietnam, and became a parachutist at the ripe age of 46 before going to Tehran as the Army attaché for the embassy. He returned to active duty and a top Pentagon job when he was released, gave talks about his ordeal at various military bases, and made Army training films based on his experience – films his son says are still in use. In a measure of his reputation, shortly after he died, the Army bestowed his name on an 11-building complex at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. And yet in retirement, when he was no longer too busy to keep memories at bay, he relived his interrogations in nightmares.
The ordeal that left an indelible mark on so many lives has not only receded in time, it has been overwhelmed and overshadowed by the many terrible terrorist acts that followed, most notably the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Still, Firestone says she was shocked to find the Iran hostage crisis distilled to one paragraph in her son’s history book. In Lankford’s conference room one recent day, she gazed at hostage photos on a 2001 trial exhibit headlined “52 Faces We Won’t Forget,” and remarked, “It seems like everybody has forgotten.”
In the view of many former hostages, that forgetfulness extends to the failure of the U.S. government to learn from what what they endured amid the anarchic tumult of a country that had just been through a revolution. They shook their heads last Sept. 11 when terrorist attacks killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi. It was happening again – a host government unable to protect diplomatic personnel, and pleas for help that went unheeded. “Nothing’s changed over all these years,” German says.
But change may be coming at last. In the wake of the Benghazi tragedy, the Obama administration and Congress appear determined to improve protection of U.S. personnel overseas. And the former hostages, who have long been able to count on bipartisan goodwill in Congress, now have a new strategy and new prominence. Thanks to a popular film, Americans have been given a fresh reminder that Islamic terror has plagued the country beyond this generation, and 52 of its earliest victims may finally get their due. It’s no Hollywood ending, but it could be a last act.
Multimedia produced by Cory Bennett