Deb Firestone remembers the day her father called home. It was Feb. 4, around 5 in the afternoon. Her mother had gone out to an important meeting — the first lady was going to be there — leaving Firestone, 16, at home with her two younger brothers and the music teacher. They were sitting at the electric organ in their split-level suburban home when the phone rang. Being the oldest, Firestone answered.
“Deb?” It was her father’s voice.
Firestone doesn’t remember what she said. Because what do you say across 6,500 miles from your dining room in Rockville to someplace in Iran where your father is being held hostage?
While the organ lesson continued, Deb and her dad exchanged small talk, almost as if he were checking in at the end of a day’s work. As if he were about to head home.
He was there, and yet he wasn’t there. And that, says Firestone, is pretty much what it’s been like for the 35 years since that call.
Firestone’s father, Bruce German, was the budget officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 when it was overrun by militant Iranian students. He was seized and held captive for 444 days with 51 other hostages. He came home in 1981, and then, maybe a year later, when the White House welcome ceremony was a mere memory and the well-wishers had put away their yellow ribbons, he moved out, leaving his wife, with whom he had exchanged so many loving letters, and their three children, about whom he had talked with his fellow hostages.
That, at least, is how Firestone, 51, remembers it. Her mother, Marge German, is still irked that a meeting with Rosalynn Carter made her miss her husband’s call. And Bruce German chooses not to tell his story publicly — and declined a request to be interviewed. He lives in Pennsylvania, and Firestone says she rarely gets to speak with him. Not on his birthday or at Christmas. Not on the Nov. 4 anniversary of his capture, or on Jan. 20, the date the hostages were released. Firestone says he wasn’t at her wedding or at her brothers’ weddings; that he doesn’t know his six grandchildren; and that he last saw her daughter, now 13, when she was about 4.
“He misses big things, he misses small things,” the sixth-grade math teacher reflects, her voice quavering.
“I hold on to one little shred of hope . . . he’s letting time go by, and you can’t get that back.”
The remaining hostages — 13 of the 52 have died — are keenly aware that they can’t recover lost time, so they are looking with increasing urgency for another kind of restitution. They have turned to Congress in a bid for compensation for their captivity — for solitary confinement and mock firing squads, for beatings with rubber hoses and being hung, like laundry, over open elevator shafts, or run, blindfolded, into trees. And for the toll all this took on their families.
They’ve pinned their hopes on legislation sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia (home state of three former hostages), which “almost made it,” the Republican senator says, into December’s mammoth spending bill.
They’re watching negotiations underway between the United States and Iran, wondering whether there will finally be an end to the diplomatic standoff prompted by their horrifying ordeals — and how that might affect their cause.
And, 35 years on, as some of the hostages live out their last years, they are aware that if anyone is to benefit from a long-awaited windfall, it will probably be the next generation — Firestone’s generation.
Because their own time to get justice is running out.
The Tehran hostages have been repeatedly frustrated in their quest for compensation because of a clause in the agreement that secured their freedom. The 1981 Algiers Accords — the deal Algerian diplomats brokered between the United States and Iran that finally brought the 50 men and two women home — barred the hostages from taking legal action against Iran. When they’ve tried, the State Department has argued— against its own diplomats and the people who protected them— that the accords are still binding. A deal is a deal, after all. And this one succeeded in ending one of the most traumatic episodes of late-20th-century American history.
The upshot? Not only has Iran never paid a penalty for overrunning the embassy, violating fundamental principles of diplomatic immunity that reach back to antiquity and are codified in a 1961 treaty, but a number of the former hostages say they feel let down by the country they signed up to serve.
Don Cooke, just 25 when he and the other hostages were freed, clearly recalls former-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance saying immediately after their release that the U.S. government would find a way to compensate the hostages for the injustices they had suffered.
“The frustration,” says John Limbert, a junior Foreign Service officer at the time who spent many months in solitary confinement, “is that our own government has opposed us and has implicitly worked in concert with the Islamic Republic. . . . It’s like some kind of a bad John le Carre novel.”
Having failed to win compensation for the hostages through the courts, Thomas Lankford, the Alexandria-based lawyer who represents them, turned to Congress. “We tried to fashion a remedy — from fines and penalties for companies and individuals sanctioned for doing business with Iran illegally,” he says. “Plus a surcharge.”
And they were, he believes, on the “lip of success” at the end of last year when it seemed Isakson’s legislation might be included in the $1.1 trillion spending bill. Lankford slipped out of his seat at an Aaron Neville concert late one December night to finesse some key language, only to learn the next morning that it hadn’t made it into the bill. On the Jan. 20 anniversary of the hostages’ release, Isakson issued a statement saying he planned to reintroduce legislation soon. He continues to back the hostages’ quest out of a sense of “equity,” he says.
Now, some of the former hostages wonder whether their cause might come up in the ongoing talks over curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, whether compensating them could be part of an ultimate diplomatic deal. The United States is providing some sanctions relief to Iran as part of those negotiations, freeing up about about $490 million in Iranian revenue held abroad every three weeks.
In an e-mail, a State Department official expressed sympathy with the hostages’ plight but says the “talks are focused on one issue and one issue only — ensuring that Iran cannot acquire a nuclear weapon” and that “we will continue to work with Congress to explore options” to compensate the former hostages.
That may be the way of Washington. But it leaves further frustration and existential questions in its wake.
“There needs to be some kind of impact” on the states that sponsor terrorism, Firestone says. “Look at how many lives they ruined.”
Those ruined lives — documented in memoirs, reimagined in movies and relived in unrelenting nightmares — are now the baseline for the chillingly formulaic calculus of attaching price tags to historic wrongs, like the settlements with the Japanese interned during World War II, the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund, or the ongoing debate about reparations for slavery.
So what’s the going rate for depression, divorce, substance abuse and premature deaths linked to 444 days of unmitigated stress? For long days whiled away in mental institutions?
Should somebody like Cooke, who says the experience in Tehran left him with “a greater appreciation for living my life . . . that life is something to be treasured,” get the same amount as another former hostage who is eager to hide his name because he’s still convinced the Iranians will come over and kill him? What would it take to make whole the family of the late Leland “Jumper” Holland, the Army attache who worked in intelligence and thus was singled out to suffer, according to his son John Holland, who used to help his mother manage her husband’s bouts of crouching, mumbling fear?
They all suffered, says Lankford, who emphasizes that he is simply asking that these hostages and their families be treated like other victims of terrorism.
“When you live in fear of your every breath being your last, it changes everyone.”
The figure Lankford names is $448 million. That, he explains, is in keeping with a historic standard applied by U.S. courts of $10,000 per hostage per day of captivity or about $4.4 million per head, and half that amount for each spouse and child.
Although it is far more than the $50 per day that each hostage received from the government in the 1980s, it is a paltry request compared with the sums (including punitive damages) that U.S. courts have awarded in some cases. Associated Press journalist Terry Anderson won $341 million after being imprisoned for nearly seven years in Lebanon. American University of Beirut administrator Thomas Sutherland was awarded more than $350 million after being held almost as long. Both collected tens of millions from Iranian money held by the Pentagon, according to Washington lawyer Stuart Newberger of Crowell & Moring, who represented them.
Other victims of terrorism who have won judgments but not yet received a payment see some benefit in the legal process itself.
“It was important if an injustice had occurred that we use justice and the rule of law to the best effect that we could,” says Susan van de Ven, whose father, Middle East scholar Malcolm Kerr, was shot in the back of the head by Hezbollah gunmen in 1984 when he was president of the American University of Beirut. Van de Ven, whose book, “One Family’s Response to Terrorism,” explores the moral complexities of seeking compensation, recalls the six years of methodical deliberations that she went through with her mother and close relatives (including her brother, former NBA star and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr) before deciding to bring suit almost 20 years after her father’s death.
“We felt very conflicted about using the U.S. legal system when we felt the U.S. government had had a role to play in the problem my father found himself in,” recalls van de Ven, whose family has had deep ties in the Middle East for generations. Suing for damages, she says, “is an imperfect system, but far better than retribution.”
The Tehran hostages argue, similarly, that their cause is not only about the money.
The “principle of accountability” is compelling, says Limbert, who went on to become deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and whose wife is Iranian. “The idea that the Iranian authorities endorsed the action and benefited from it and were never held accountable.”
Compensation won’t change what’s happened, says Firestone, “but it would at least show us that the U.S. cares.”
The television is on in the split-level Rockville home where Firestone picked up the call from her father 35 years ago and where Marge German still lives. The screen shows footage of the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo, of ordinary Parisians demonstrating solidarity with the dead journalists.
Scenes like that sometimes bring the pain back, mother and daughter point out as they sit at the dining-room table. At times, they say, “It’s still very, very raw.”
They are talking not only about the 444 days of the crisis, when Marge German sent packages of pineapple-raisin cookies along with her letters to Tehran and arranged for the hostages to get subscriptions to the Sporting News. They are thinking about the years since then, about how the stay-at-home mom who’d given up her career as a budget analyst found herself cobbling together Pell grants and student loans to put Firestone and her brothers through school.
There’s no knowing how their lives might have played out if the hostage crisis hadn’t happened. What role, if any, the prolonged captivity and mock executions played in what came next. Whether everything might have been different had there been more support for the hostages and their families once they were reunited. People simply didn’t talk about post-traumatic stress order back then, says Firestone.
German is writing a memoir about the crisis. She started 35 years ago, never imagining the arc the narrative would take. She flicks through the neatly typed pages, reading from the notes she took the day she missed her husband’s call and remembering how she questioned Deb after meeting Mrs. Carter, eager for new details about her absent spouse.
Several other families got calls that afternoon, German says. She has a theory that the Iranians knew about the meeting with the first lady, so that when the hostages were finally allowed to telephone home, they would find their wives were out. That’s just the kind of thing the hostage takers would do, she says. To break their victims’ spirits and wreak havoc in their families’ lives.