On the 35th anniversary of the end of the Iran hostage crisis, those who survived the 444-day ordeal took some comfort in knowing that fair compensation will be coming their way.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) fought for years for a way to overcome the barrier that was keeping victims from reaping damages — the Algiers Accords meant that none of the hostages could bring a suit against Iran.
Five years after their release, the 52 Americans got about $50 from the U.S. government for each day that they were held captive.
Not enough, said a bipartisan group of lawmakers that joined forces with Isakson to find the cash for fair compensation.
Under a provision included in the omnibus spending bill, each hostage will receive $4.4 million — $10,000 for every day in captivity.
The money isn’t coming from taxpayers, but from a multibillion-dollar sanctions-violation judgment against French bank BNP Paribas for illegally handling transactions from certain Iranian, Sudanese and Cuban entities. The next step is working through the Justice Department, which is sitting on $3 billion of the judgment against the bank.
“The Algiers Accords presented a tremendous obstacle to these hostages in going to court,” Isakson’s original co-sponsor, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “A number of these hostages are senior citizens now and they deserve this money soon as possible. Our job is not yet done.”
Isakson said the timing of the legislative solution — an effort that began in the 113th Congress — had “no relevance whatsoever to the Iran nuclear deal.”
He acknowledged, though, that “when you’re dealing with Iran the window could close anytime, anywhere” — so once money became accessible lawmakers swept into action and “things all came together.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said Isakson was able to draw upon a “reservoir of respect and admiration” from his colleagues “to advocate forcefully for these hostages.”
“Some degree of justice is being realized today,” Menendez said, adding a note of remembrance for the eight servicemen killed in a failed 1980 rescue attempt.
Attorney Tom Lankford, who represents the former hostages, said 14 of those who were held by the Iranians are now over age 78, with many ailing.
Lankford said when he told one former hostage about the compensation, he replied, “Well, I guess that means I need to hang on for one more year.”
Joe Hall, 66, of Lennox, Ga., was the defense attaché operations coordinator when the U.S. Embassy was seized. Today, he said he’s “almost speechless” that “people that had almost nothing to do with us” seized upon their compensation quest “and stayed on it.”
Still, Hall said, “I am not sure it is the balm that heals what burns us.”
Kevin Hermening, 56, of Wausau, Wis., was a Marine Corps guard and the youngest hostage. Watching Tuesday’s footage of Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran who was held by Iran for four and a half years, resonated as Hekmati described the experience as “surreal.”
Hermening said “the dark days of time in captivity” remain something “that is part of our world and part of our life.”
“Thirty-five years ago we came out not only different people, but I think better people,” he said.
Hermening noted that some of those due to receive compensation have discussed setting up a fund for the servicemen killed in the rescue attempt — “brave men who gave all trying to rescue people they never even met.”
Mike Kennedy, 86, of Mount Desert, Maine, was an economic and commercial officer at the Embassy, and suffered severe PTSD after torture that included the mock firing squad.
“Our captors kept telling us, particularly in the early days, ‘you’ve been abandoned, nobody cares,'” Kennedy said, noting that “even after we came home” and the fanfare of their return died down “we all had that feeling.”
That, he said, “has contributed to the lasting disability of some of my colleagues in captivity.”
Calling the compensation legislation a “wonderful action” that “really makes a big difference,” Kennedy said he hopes it “brings closure to this awful moment in our lives.”
Former Deputy USAF Attaché Dave Roeder, 76, was hung in an open elevator shaft during his imprisonment as the Iranians threatened to kidnap and dismember his physically challenged son. He was the main plaintiff to seek damages against Iran.
“I think I came away from this experience with probably a better understanding of the true meaning of freedom than most Americans get a chance to do,” Roeder said.
“Nice as this is, there is not going to be complete closure,” he stressed, noting that compensation doesn’t fix broken relationships or heal the scars he still bears from his torture. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Isakson, who came to the Senate in 2005, said he first became interested in the Iran hostage crisis as it was unfolding. Three of the hostages were from his home state.
“Never knew I would get to the United States Senate, and when I got there on the Foreign Relations Committee I came to appreciate the work that had been done in the past by people who had tried to make compensation happen but couldn’t,” Isakson said.
“Many people scratch their head and say ‘why has it taken so long to bring some justice to the hostages,'” Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) said, adding “it’s hard to get a bipartisan approach to any solution” in D.C. but the final result was a “testament to all the good work in the Senate and the House.”