Marine veteran Amir Hekmati said his years in the Corps helped him keep his head up as he endured four and a half years in captivity in Iran — and, as he told reporters in Landstuhl, Germany, he had mentally resigned himself to a 10-year sentence on trumped-up espionage changes.
Hekmati, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native whose family now lives in Flint, Mich., was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized.
Amir served in the Iraq War and was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 2005. He was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War of Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. Marine colleagues symbolically joined Amir in rolling hunger strikes out of Semper Fi solidarity.
“I hope to get home soon,” Hekmati said while flanked by his congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), and brother-in-law Ramy Kurdi. “I really want to see my family and be back in the land of the free.”
He stressed that he feels “extremely lucky” and “alive for the first time in a long time.”
Over Amir’s time in prison, he implored U.S. officials and lawmakers, through correspondence dictated to family members, to not forget the American hostages in Iran.
“While I am thankful that the State Department and the Obama administration has called for my release and that of my fellow Americans, there has been no serious response to this blatant and ongoing mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and they continue on with impunity,” Hekmati wrote to congressional leaders in April.
“As a war veteran who defended our nation in its time of need, I ask that you also work to defend my dignity and that of my fellow Americans by putting in place serious consequences for this serial hostage-taking and mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence for clearly illegal purposes. This has been going on far too long.”
Amir said today he was “very humbled at everybody’s support, from the president, to Congress, to my fellow Marines and especially my family, who have really gone through so much throughout this time.”
“But there is a lot that I have to say about the experience and what happened, and I hope to bring that to the American people and the world. But I’m very thankful. And God bless you all. Really, I appreciate all your help.”
Of his release after so long in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison: “It’s like being born again. And I just really feel proud to be an American.”
Hekmati said there was no warning that he would be released. “They just came one morning and said, pack your things,” he said, adding that he “did not relax until we were outside of Iranian air space.”
But once the Swiss diplomatic jet crossed out of Iran, he said, the U.S. hostages’ Swiss hosts popped champagne and fed their guests chocolate and a veal dinner.
“I was worried that maybe the Iranian side was going to make new demands in the last minute or that the deal wasn’t going to work out. So up until the last second, we were all worried and concerned. We were just put in a very small room and we had no telephone or access to any information. We kept being told that we’re going to be take off in two hours, and two became six, became ten, so a total of almost two and a half days it was really nerve wracking,” he said.
Hekmati, who worked as a linguistics contractor after leaving the military, was asked if his Marine Corps training kicked in during his captivity.
“I didn’t want to let my fellow Marines down, and the reputation of the Marine Corps. So I tried my best to, you know, keep my head up and withstand all the pressures that were put upon me, some of which were very inhumane and unjust. And then hearing about some of my fellow Marines supporting me really gave me the strength to put up with over four years of some very difficult times that me and my family went through. So I’m grateful,” he said.
“Semper Fi to all the Marines out there,” Amir added.
As he waved to reporters while walking away from the microphones, Amir also motioned his hand in a brief salute.
— Free Amir Hekmati (@FreeAmirHekmati) January 19, 2016