When the American people finally get a glimpse of their released compatriots stepping off a plane onto some non-Iranian tarmac, the scene will include neither dramatic embraces with the former captives' loved ones nor revealing interviews with members of the press.
Joyful reunions, public or private, had best be deferred, the State Department has decided on the advice of "hostage psychology" specialists. Officials are concerned that the hostages may trade their Iranian prisons for a new kleig-lit captivity as national symbols unprepared for the role. The hostages' readjustment could be jeopardized if they are forced to confront too much "reality" and emotion before the hostages have had a chance to assess the toll captivity has taken on them.
As prospects for the release of the 52 Americans appeared to brighten, attention -- and some controversy -- focused on the homecoming as a time of special stress. The question was how best to protect the hostages and their families and at the same time accommodate an expected tidal wave of public and private emotions and the fiercely competitive media.
The hostages have come to be viewed as "national property" by the American public, noted Louisa Kennedy, the wife of hostage Moorhead Kennedy and a spokeswoman for the families as a group.
"Given that, of course, there will be programs of public participation . . . but in the middle of all this, we hope there will be a time for privacy again," she said.
"The American people have been marvelous and, of course, we owe them something for that," added Pat Lee, the wife of hostage Gary E. Lee. "But before we face the hordes, well, some of us just object to running across the tarmac and striking a poignant pose in front of the whole world the very first time we see our husbands, after waiting so long."
An initial "decompression period" will take place behind the wire fences and institutional brick of the U.S. Air Force Hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany, where previously released hostages also were received, according to State Department officials. There, a team of doctors and counselors will provide whatever medical or psychological care is deemed necessary.
The hostages will be debriefed and will have access to news magazines and videotape cassettes to bring them up to date on news events during their captivity. They will be able to make free telephone calls to anyone they wish. Press coverage will be held to a tightly controlled minimum, if possible.
After this first isolation, lasting from three to five days, the hostages -- under this tentative plan -- will be flown to an undisclosed location, probably a military base in the United States, where they can be reunited with their families in privacy.
Only after that will come the heroes' welcome. The floodgates on this, with all the brass bands, speeches and national curiosity, are not supposed to be opened until the hostages arrive at Andrews Air Force Base here. Officials anticipate that there will be a welcome at the White House and other state celebrations, just to get things started.
It is far from certain that the hostages, their families, or the press will follow this plan, and officials caution that any number of circumstances could alter it.
Some members of the hostages' families, along with others, have criticized the State Department for, among other things, its policy of discouraging the families from flying to West Germany to be be reunited with their loved ones as early as possible.
This frustration is only one of many pressures that will be operating in the days surrounding the release. Mental health specialists in the burgeoning hostage psychology industry, both within and outside the State Department, as well as former hostages and former prisoners of war, have offered various insights and theories on the probable state of the hostages as they emerge from captivity and on the most beneficial "reentry" process for them.
Virtually all seem to agree that some brief "decompression" period is a good thing, although they differ on the details. They also say the hostages should then get back to a normal working life as quickly as they can, and should be treated as if they are "different" as little as possible.
That first period of privacy would provide, among other things, a crucial opportunity for the hostages to form bonds of support for each other before they split up, according to some -- an observation based in part on the experiences of returning Vietnam prisoners of war.
"That opportunity might be missed the moment they go their separate ways and make public statements," said Franch Ochberg, a psychiatrist and director of the Michigan state department of mental health. "These people will be on record more than at any time of their lives, and could be stuck with certain attitudes."
Ochberg has made studies of victims in several previous hostage situations, including survivors of the terrorist seizure that ended in the Entebbe raid, and the hijacking by South Moluccan terrorists of a train in the Netherlands.
Hostages already released from the captivity in Tehran, and others, have indicated there probably will be tensions among the hostages as a group, such as those that occurred among some returning Vietnam POWs. These tensions might be based on differences in the way they behaved in capivity, or in the way they were treated, or between military and civilians, and so on. The hostages need a chance to "work through" these feelings, according to some specialists.
There also may be some conflicts between the needs of the families and the needs of the hostages.
"All the attention has been focused on the hostages, and not so much on the families, as far as a reentry program," said Charles R. Figley, a psychologist and director of Purdue University's Family Research Institute in Indiana, who previously had worked with the families of POWs. "I feel there has to be someone who speaks up for the families . . . . They are hostages, too."
Figley, who has been consulted by several of the hostages' relatives, is strongly critical of the State Department's manner of dealing with the hostages' families. He said the agency should have provided more direct and personalized services to the relatives and, among other things, that the so-called decompression time after the release should be much shorter than apparently is planned. He feels that the families should be flown over to join the hostages, at least for a brief reassuring reunion, at their first stop.
He opposes such action, however, "if the families can't all be flown over. It would be very bad if some have their families out there to meet them and others do not."
An official of FLAG (Family Liaison Action Group), the organization composed of hostage's families, said most of the relatives agree that they will abide by the State Department plan.
"The families and the hostages both deserve an initial shaking-down period, to discover what we have become in all this," the official said. Some of the criticism directed at the State Department is a natural symptom of the pain and frustration these families feel over the whole situation she added.
The Americans still held captive range in age from 20 to 64. About half of them are married. Some are seasoned diplomats and some are green Marine guards. Some have been raised in small towns or on farms, some in big cities. They are too diverse a group for generalizations about their condition when they step off that homecoming plane.
If they follow the pattern of previous terrorist victims and other captives, they probably will fall into at least three different categories in terms of their readjustment to normal life, according to Ochberg.
Some, "probably a significant-sized group," will look on this as a positive experience, a turning point in their lives, he said, explaining: They'll feel that their relationships with loved ones were made more precious, they experienced a reevaluation of this one life on earth, perhaps a feeling that they were shaken out of the traces . . . ."
A second group probably made up of people with very strong traditional values and not given to introspection, may feel relatively untouched by the experience, he said.
And a third group will suffer "some psychological impact," such as anxiety or some form of depression. Of this group, some will get help and others can be expected to feel humiliated and resist help.
Shaking, trembling, nightmares, increased drinking, smoking, use of medication, altered eating habits, problems sleeping, a slowness of talk and movement, a loss of sex drive, loss of self-esteem, and phobias may accompany anxiety and depression, the specialist said. There could be psychosomatic problems such as hypertension, asthma and ulcers. These, too, may vary in intensity and duration.
"One-third of the people who lived through the Moluccan terrorist train hijacking won't ride a train at all," Ochberg said. "Others will ride only with a friend. Some will ride the train, but they get off at Assen [to avoid the site of the seizure] and take the bus to Groningen." a
Specialists urge that the public and the press should be sensitive to the needs of the families and the hostages in the immediate aftermath of their release.
"Lionizing the hostages needs to be held to a minimum," cautioned Dr. Herbert C. Modlin, a Menninger Foundation psychiatrist who has examined POWs, hostages and hostage-takers. "Tickertape parades and large celebrations may seem peculiar to them, because they very likely do not see themselves as heroes . . . ."
"There's no reason for them not to enjoy their celebrity. They've earned it," said Ochberg. "But they may get to like it, and it's going to wear off."
"If they pin their prestige and recovery to a role that is not them," he the 'celebrities.' They'll be competing for attention. The one that needs comforting will have to be the comforter, too."