David M. Roeder, a retired Air Force colonel, was at home last week in Pinehurst, North Carolina, when he first saw the news flash on his television: A U.S. embassy was under attack by protesters in the Middle East.
“I said, ‘Uh-oh, here we go again,’ ” said Roeder, who was among more than 50 Americans who were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, in a crisis that ruptured relations and set off 40 years of intense hostilities between Washington and Tehran.
“There are fires. They are attacking the embassy,” said Roeder, now 80. “That’s déjà vu.”
The latest attack — on the embassy in Baghdad — came days before a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian commander, quickly escalating tensions in the region. President Donald Trump later referred to the hostage crisis in a warning to Iran not to retaliate, saying in a tweet that the United States had pinpointed 52 Iranian sites as potential targets, to represent the 52 Americans held by Iran from 1979 to 1981.
The president’s threat thrust the hostages back into the spotlight, at a time when some say they feel that their ordeal has largely been forgotten by the American public. Of 53 hostages, which includes an additional diplomat who was released early, an estimated 18 have died. The remaining 35, who are of retirement age, have moved on as best they can. Still, their 444 days of captivity hang like a shadow in the background of their lives, returning in their dreams, or when Iran surfaces in the news.
In interviews, several of the former hostages said they were both surprised to be remembered and also reluctant to be pulled into a fraught and potentially violent political battle.
“I’m somewhat miffed that this in some form or another is supposed to be in our honor,” said Al Golacinski, a former regional security officer at the embassy who is now 69 and retired in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. “I don’t need that.”
“We’ve all gone on with our lives, those of us that are still alive, and there are fewer and fewer of us every six months or so,” said Chuck Scott, an 88-year-old retired Army colonel who was commander of the Special Forces team at the time of the hostage crisis. He added, “We’re not part of it anymore.”
In an interview on MSNBC, another former hostage, John Limbert, put it bluntly: “Mr. President, if you’re listening, please don’t bother yourself on my account, because I want nothing to do with it.”
The Iran hostages — who dealt with physical and psychological torture, including instances of solitary confinement and mock execution — have also had to fight for restitution since they were released because of an agreement that barred them from seeking damages for their imprisonment. In 2015, Congress authorized payments of up to $4.4 million: $10,000 per day of captivity, as well as a lump-sum payment to spouses and children. But only a small portion of that money has been paid, the situation complicated after relatives of Sept. 11 victims applied for compensation from the same fund.
Instead of drawing them into the current conflict, some of the hostages said they wanted the attention to be on restitution they said they deserved. “Why don’t you just go ahead and pay us the money you promised us?” Scott said.
V. Thomas Lankford, a lawyer in Alexandria, Virginia, who represents many of the former Iranian hostages and their families, is still fighting for further payment. He cited years of anxiety attacks, trouble sleeping and threats of suicide among former hostages.
“There was one hostage that died in the last two years,” he said. “Every night, his wife would tell me, he would cry and whimper in his sleep and all of a sudden he would sit and bolt up right as if he were still in captivity.”
“There is another very prominent one who, every time Iran becomes involved in the news in a big sort of way, he will have to go back to receive institutional help,” Lankford said, adding, “They have, in all respects, continued to be victims.”
Golacinski, who has talked about his experience being blindfolded, handcuffed and subjected to a mock execution while in captivity, said he had closely watched the latest developments, but he did not want to tie recent events to the 1979 crisis.
“What has happened in the past week has no association with us,” he said. “This is not as though we’ve all been waiting all this time for someone to be killed, almost as though it’s on our behalf. It is not on our behalf.”
Roeder said he had been following the recent news nearly around the clock. Trump’s tweet that referred to them, he said, was at least evidence that they had not been entirely forgotten.
“It was encouraging, and somewhat surprising, that someone in government actually acknowledged that they remember what happened to us,” he said.
“Everybody seems to agree the general was a bad guy,” he said, referring to Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian commander who was killed. Still, he feared for Iranians who might get caught in the conflict. “Those people are vulnerable.”
“I went through that,” he added. “I know what it did to families. I know what it did to the country. I don’t think that’s what we want to have happen again.”