A Legacy of Courage

Thursday, December 22, 2005

HERE IS A STORY of courage, hope and love, though you have to go backward in time from this Christmas season of 2005 to get to those things. Its latest chapter was played out last week when German authorities announced the paroling of a man who had served just under 19 years for the particularly vicious murder of a young American. The parolee, Mohammed Ali Hammadi, walked out of prison and went off to Lebanon, and from there, who knows? Although American authorities would like to see him answer further for his crimes, we won't concern ourselves with him here anymore, nor with Germany's inexplicable decision.

This story is about others, mainly a young man from our own area named Robert Dean Stethem. He was a Navy diver and the victim of that murder, committed in the course of a torturously long airplane hijacking carried out by members of Hezbollah in 1985. Mr. Stethem, who came from Waldorf, was beaten savagely aboard the plane while it sat on a runway in Beirut. Afterward, a 16-year-old girl from Australia, Ruth Henderson, talked quietly with the sailor, seeking to comfort him. "He said how it may be better that he died," she testified later in a German court. "He believed that someone would die on the plane, someone from the Navy men [there were five other divers on the plane], and he said that because he was the only one who wasn't married, that he should be the one to die. He spoke with a clear mind. . . . He didn't believe that all of us could get out alive. He felt it was fair that he dies so that the rest of us could live." Mr. Stethem was killed not long afterward.

"Stethem was probably the bravest young man I have ever seen in my life," said John L. Testrake, captain of the hijacked TWA Flight 847. Mr. Testrake himself won praise for his coolness during the 17-day ordeal, in which the plane was directed back and forth across the Mediterranean a number of times. Another hero of the flight, one whose essential humanity and courage undoubtedly prevented additional bloodshed, was Ulrike Derickson, a flight attendant who tried to stop the abuse of Mr. Stethem and who intervened to prevent the killing of a second Navy diver. She sought to calm the hijackers when they became agitated and to protect the passengers in whatever ways she could.

Like Mr. Stethem, they are gone now. Mr. Testrake died in 1996 and Ms. Derickson just this year. In the season of life, names such as these should live.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company