But the full promised payments of up to $4.44 million — $10,000 for each day of captivity — never came. Hostages or their families have received only a small portion from a special fund that administrators now say is out of money. There will be no payments for 2022.
It’s now more than 40 years since their release. The group of surviving hostages is down to 35, and the losses are coming faster now. Two died this month, including former Army medic Donald Hohman last week.
“We are not getting any younger,” said David M. Roeder, 82, who is among those imploring President Biden to step in.
The retired Air Force colonel, who was a military attache at the embassy, was the lead plaintiff in years of unsuccessful litigation against Iran. The hostages sought to get around the terms of their 1981 release, a deal brokered by Algeria that freed the hostages on President Ronald Reagan’s first day in office but barred legal claims.
The State Department fought the former hostages in court, on the grounds that the United States sticks by the terms of diplomatic deals even when it might wish otherwise. Court after court ruled against the erstwhile captives.
“They went through hell,” said Dorothea Morefield, whose husband, Richard H. Morefield, had been the consul general when the embassy was seized. He died in 2010, at age 81.
“What he suffered was a disgrace,” said Morefield, who lives in Cary, N.C. “He lost peripheral vision in one eye from being thrown against a wall. He never went a full night [of sleep] again. We lived with the aftereffects forever.”
Her husband always believed Iran should be held accountable, she added, both as punishment for an act of prolonged cruelty and as a deterrent to potential copycats tempted to humiliate the United States again.
The Iran hostage crisis was a national trauma for the United States. On Nov. 4, 1979 — just months after militants loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized control of the country — Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy and took its staff hostage. U.S. leaders were helpless, and Americans were shocked by images of the blindfolded hostages paraded before hostile crowds.
Newscasters took to reminding Americans each night how long the hostages had been in captivity. President Jimmy Carter’s standing never recovered, and when the captives were released hours after Reagan’s inaugural address, it seemed a final insult to the departing president.
After years of fruitless legal battles against Iran, the 2015 law was enacted as a solution. It set up a special fund for victims of “state sponsors of terrorism,” a term currently limited to Iran, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. The fund collects money from sanctions, asset seizures and other actions against those countries and apportions it to victims approved by the Justice Department.
But the law was amended in 2019 under pressure from relatives and survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, who had won a federal court judgment against Iran after asserting that Tehran had aided the 9/11 attackers. The result was a depleted pool of money, as the embassy hostages suddenly had to share with thousands of new claimants.
“That statute passed by Congress is the best example I know of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished,” said attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the fund as an outside special master until 2020.
“I was left in the position of saying: ‘To all of you hostages and hostage families, I wish I could help you. Insofar as you take the position that your money should be accelerated and paid in full, I immediately say you make a very convincing case. [But] that’s not the statute,’ ” Feinberg said.
The awkward result has essentially pitted one group of terrorism victims against another. The Iran hostages say they bear no ill will toward the much larger pool of 9/11 victims, but question why that group — which has received separate compensation and can sue for further payments — received access to a fund established specifically to help those for whom the courts are not an option.
“It seems like everyone is getting paid except us,” Roeder said. “We don’t begrudge them their due, but we’ve been suffering longer, and let’s face it — I was 41 when I was released and today I’m 82 — we need to have this resolved soon.”
Thomas Lankford, a lawyer for the embassy hostages and their families, said that after the 9/11 victims were added to the fund, his group argued to be paid first since they’d been waiting 20 years longer. When that didn’t work, the group began pushing for new legislation placing them at the head of the line or a directive from the president or the attorney general that the current law be interpreted that way.
Those arguments came to naught during the Trump administration, Lankford said. And so far, the group has not heard anything encouraging from the Biden administration.
The fund’s current special master, Mary Patrice Brown, through her law firm, referred questions to the Justice Department. Representatives of a group representing 9/11 families did not respond to a request for comment.
The Justice Department takes the same position outlined by Feinberg: The law is clear that the 9/11 victims share equally in the fund with Iran hostages and other victims of attacks attributed to countries on the state terror list. Department officials also dispute the idea that Biden or Attorney General Merrick Garland could help them with the stroke of a pen.
The former hostages now plan a renewed campaign to put their case to Biden, who was vice president when the law was enacted establishing the fund.
“I would tell him that the law was passed under the administration he was part of; the act was done on a bipartisan basis; it was approved by an overwhelming vote and signed by the president,” said Roeder, of Pinehurst, N.C.
The hostage restitution “needs to be paid, and if it is, we’d gladly go away,” he added.
But for now, the remaining men and women at the heart of a tragedy that gripped the nation four decades ago are left hoping something will change before they die or become too ill to reap the benefit.
Kathryn Koob, 83, was one of two women held prisoner in Iran. She had arrived months earlier to head a program aimed at fostering educational and community ties between the two countries. They were sequestered from male hostages and, Koob said, treated better.
“I always felt we were going to get out,” she said. “I guess that’s Iowa pragmatism and my active faith in the Lutheran Church.”
Koob, who lives in Waterloo, Iowa, said she has not followed the ins-and-outs of the legal and lobbying effort. But she wants a quick resolution so she can use the money to establish an endowed chair in world religion at her alma mater, Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. “That’s something I very much want to do while I can,” Koob said.
Many of the former hostages say their efforts are not just about getting a promised payout, but about receiving a measure of recognition from a country that seems to have moved on — to other tragedies, other causes, other victims.
John Holland, whose late father, Leland J. Holland, was also an embassy military attache, said he would simply tell the president, “We’re fed up.”
Holland, of Culpeper, Va., said he voted for Obama but felt betrayed by the deal with Iran that imposed restrictions on its nuclear program. That agreement, reached by Obama and other world leaders in 2015, returned money to Iran that had been held abroad since the militants took power in 1979.
“So he does this nuclear deal and he gives hundreds of millions back to those thugs — and that’s what they are,” Holland said. “And that’s nothing compared to what, as a group, we’ve been awarded. Once again, we’re under the rug.”
Leland Holland died in 1990 of prostate cancer.
As money has come into the fund over the years, the former hostages have gotten occasional payments. Overall, the fund’s administrators estimate that its non-9/11 beneficiaries — who include the Iran hostages as well as victims of embassy bombings and other events — have received about 24 percent of what they are eligible for.
Officials hope more money will be forthcoming at some point from sanctions and other sources. But for the dwindling number of survivors, time is running out.
Biden memorialized the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this month with visits to each of the three sites where hijacked planes crashed on that day, killing nearly 3,000 people. The attacks planned by the terrorist network al-Qaeda shocked Americans and caused an outpouring of mourning and remembrance for the victims.
The scale of the death and destruction was unprecedented — but Americans’ impulse to come together in support of the victims was not.
Following the shock of seeing blindfolded American hostages paraded in Tehran, Americans throughout the country tied yellow ribbons around trees in solidarity with the captured diplomats, service members and others. The 444-day ordeal, which included a failed rescue attempt, seized the public imagination and helped sink Carter’s reelection prospects as political adversaries portrayed him as hapless and weak.
When the hostages finally arrived in the United States, the emotional homecoming overshadowed the diplomatic fine print that had freed them. Neither they nor their families had a say in the deal that ruled out court compensation, Lankford said — not that they probably would have protested right away.
“All of us would have done anything” to get their relatives out, said Kate Keough, who was 21 when her father, William Keough, came home. “It had been such a long time.”
If she knew at the time that the arrangement precluded lawsuits or other efforts to win compensation for the ordeal, she didn’t pay much attention, said Keough, of Burlington, Vt.
“I just wanted to see my dad,” she said.
William Keough died in 1985, at 55, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, making him among the first of the former hostages to die.
Roeder, a Vietnam veteran, said he applied a military “resistance plan” of mental and physical rigor to his time in captivity. He takes some satisfaction from having been a difficult prisoner for the mostly young, inexperienced militants to handle, and said he had not feared for his life.
“I knew the dumbest thing they could possibly do is to kill us,” Roeder said. “The Air Force would have turned Tehran into the Stone Age or something.”
The captors lined up some of the hostages for “mock firing squads,” during which other militants searched their cells, Roeder said. He once laughed when it was apparent that a student captor did not know how to load or use a rifle.
But Roeder was also devastated when an Iranian militant educated in the United States told him in English that the regime knew where his disabled son went to school, as well as the school hours and his son’s transportation route — and recounted the precise information.
“They were absolutely right,” Roeder said. “It was one of the worst days of my life.”
His son, now 57, lives in a group home. The settlement money would help with his continued care, Roeder said.
“This is a promise that the U.S. government made and should keep. It’s owed to them and to their memory,” Morefield said. “I simply don’t understand why. It’s been a while. Maybe they would just like to forget.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.