AP Exclusive: Iran hostage reunion at West Point

MICHAEL HILL - Associated Press
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FILE - In this Jan. 21, 1981 file photo, freed U.S. hostage David Roeder shouts and waves as he arrives at Rhein-Main U.S. Air Force base in Frankfurt, Germany. Roeder was among 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days after their capture at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. On the 30th anniversary of their release, at least 10 former hostages have said they will join each other for a reunion hosted by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. (AP Photo, File)

Former Iranian hostage Barry Rosen touched down on an American tarmac 30 years ago and spilled into the arms of a wife and two young children lost to him during 444 days of captivity. Then came the exhilarating bus ride to West Point along a route lined with yellow ribbons and thousands of cheering people, waving and chanting, "USA! USA!"

Three decades after the famous release on Jan. 20, 1981, back to a country that had been on the edge of its seat since the crisis began, Rosen will be among the former hostages returning to the site of their emotional homecoming during a reunion hosted by the U.S. Military Academy. It'll be a chance to catch up with friends who share an intimate and harrowing bond — and to speak to cadets who had yet to be born.

"I don't want to get maudlin about this, but 30 years is a long time, and we're getting older as a group," Rosen told The Associated Press.

The crisis began when Iranian students took dozens of hostages in 1979 after the U.S. refused to deport the deposed shah, who was in the United States for cancer treatment. Fifty-two of the hostages endured 444 days of captivity. They were bound, blindfolded, kicked, taunted and isolated. They endured mock executions.

The sudden announcement of the hostages' release came as Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the new president in 1981, denying Jimmy Carter an accomplishment he had been seeking for months.

The former hostages stopped at an Air Force Base in what was then West Germany before being flown to Newburgh, N.Y., for tearful reunions with loved ones.

At least 10 former hostages have accepted invitations from Thayer Hotel on the West Point academy grounds and will arrive starting Jan. 20 for several days of events mixing pleasure and public service. Also invited to the private event were veterans of the ill-fated military rescue mission that ended in a helicopter crash that killed eight U.S. servicemen.

Thirty years on, 10 hostages have died and others are in poor health. Most are of retirement age.

The former hostages coming to the storied academy on the Hudson River will catch up with one another and talk to cadets about Iran and their experiences. They'll tour the grounds, eat at the cathedral-like mess hall and take in an Army-Navy basketball game.

Rosen, 66, was the press attache in Tehran when students stormed the U.S. Embassy. He sees the visit as a chance to talk to future Army officers about a regime in Iran that, with its hard-line actions and nuclear ambitions, still poses problems for the United States. He also acknowledged that talking about his captivity — he would spend a full day tracking a spot of sunlight across a dark room — could have a "therapeutic quality."

"I do think — as painful as sometimes it is — it's also very important to talk about it to try to get it out to make people understand what's going and to actually make myself understand why and how this all occurred," he said.

On their arrival at Newburgh's Stewart International Airport, former Marine Sgt. Kevin Hermening was met by his folks, who told him people had been praying for him back home in Wisconsin. Rosen gave a toy Mercedes police car he got in Germany to his 4-year-old son, Alexander, and a doll to 1-year-old daughter Ariana, who did not know or trust her long-gone father.

"She took that doll from me and she never gave me a kiss," he said.

The hostages were whisked to West Point, where the hotel offered a private spot for reunions. They rode some 15 miles in buses decorated with yellow ribbons, the symbol of hope back home during the long ordeal. Thousands lined the bus route in an outpouring of relief and joy. Some carried signs reading, "We Thank God You're Home."

The group, isolated for more than 14 months, was stunned.

"We had no idea until we were in Wiesbaden, Germany, on our way home that the American people had even followed our situation, " Hermening said. "We didn't know that Ted Koppel's TV show started because of it. We didn't know that people put up yellow ribbons. I mean, we were so cut off from anything it really was an overwhelming return home."

Col. Michael Meese, West Point class of 1981, remembers the thunderous ovation his fellow cadets gave the hostages at the mess hall. Hostages took pictures of uniformed cadets, and cadets took snapshots of the hostages. Meese, who now heads the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, said current cadets will benefit from hearing their story.

"They certainly did their duty, reflecting the kind of 'duty, honor, country' that is our motto and that we're trying to imbue with the cadets," he said.

Eventually, the yellow ribbons came down and the hostages picked up with their lives and tried to adjust as best they could.

Hermening, who was the youngest hostage and is now 51, owns Hermening Financial Group in Wausau, Wis., and is married with two daughters. He has given thousands of speeches about his experiences, part of what he calls "the ongoing process of giving back."

Rosen, a grandfather married almost 39 years, is executive director of public affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College. He long ago gained his daughter's trust.

One thing has not changed, though.

"Iran will always be with me," Rosen said. "All the time."