Up to 200 Americans each year are kidnapped abroad or detained by hostile states; business people, journalists, humanitarian workers, students and tourists. The majority are taken by criminals for money, others by terrorist groups seeking political concessions in places like Syria or Afghanistan, and still others are held by states like Iran, Venezuela, Turkey or North Korea where Americans are valuable bargaining chips. As instability continues in many parts of the world, this problem is not going away.
In 2015, President Obama acknowledged U.S. government shortcomings in dealings with families following the murder of American hostages in Syria. He created new government entities to bring coordination, transparency and access for hostage families. These provisions were not, however, extended to the families of Americans held by states like Iran or North Korea. Technically, the government classifies them as “detainees,” not “hostages.”
Most cases go unreported in the media, so families suffer in silence. They face practical problems: defaulted mortgages when the hostage receives no salary during captivity and spouses unable to access family funds because accounts are in the hostage’s name. Many families dip into 401(K)s for living expenses, losing precious retirement savings and incurring early withdrawal fees.
Hostages who survive captivity must then work out how to survive survival. Many are severely malnourished and suffer chronic sleep problems. They come home to fines from the Internal Revenue Service for unfiled taxes and a collapsed credit rating that prevents them getting a credit card or buying a car. They struggle to find properly qualified counselors because most do not take health insurance.
This is where the organization I lead, Hostage U.S., steps in. Our role is not to negotiate their release; we make sure hostages and their families get the care and support they need. Each family is assigned a dedicated member of our team, a trusted partner who walks alongside them in the silence, accompanying them to government meetings and making sense of what they are being told. Families have access to our partners – lawyers, financial advisers, media experts, doctors and counselors – who give their time free of charge.
One family member said this about her Hostage U.S. volunteer: “She was our friend and confidante, our cheerleader and coach and someone who took care of the little details for us so we could focus our attention and energy on the task at hand.”
Trump should be applauded for his commitment to bringing Americans home. Under his watch, U.S. citizens have returned from North Korea, Egypt, Venezuela, the Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and Turkey. This holiday season, these families won’t be left with unopened presents under the tree.
Trump’s new National Strategy for Counterterrorism calls for cooperation between public, private and foreign partners. In my experience, this is the essential ingredient of successful responses to hostage taking. As Chris Costa, former Special Assistant to Trump and senior director for counterterrorism, told me, “Starting at the top, I saw firsthand the commitment to hostages and their families in the Trump White House. Of course, government can’t do this alone.”
We call on the government to partner with us and other concerned groups and individuals to resolve outstanding problems facing hostages and their families in the following ways:
The U.S. government should provide full services and benefits to the families of Americans held in countries such as Iran and North Korea. These hostages and their families are not getting the support they need from government and are not able to access victims’ funds.
The Treasury and IRS should allow hostages and their families to make hardship withdrawals from their 401(k) accounts with no penalty or tax in order to meet immediate needs. The IRS should clarify and simplify notification processes to ensure hostages are not fined for failing to file taxes during their captivity.
The Justice Department should increase its $5,000 cap on funds for the victims of hostage-taking and remove the three-year time limit for claims. Most specialist trauma counselors do not accept health insurance, which means this only covers a small number of therapy sessions. Post-traumatic stress disorder can take many years to develop. We are helping survivors of the 1979 Iran embassy siege who continue to suffer crippling psychological effects almost 40 years later.
As we gather for the holidays, remember the families with an empty chair at the dining table. Let our government continue to work to secure their release, and together as Americans, let’s make sure they get the support they need to endure this terrifying crime.