AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy – Sitting one row behind me next to the window, she blended in with the other travelers, casually dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt layered under a pink short-sleeved shirt.
We, and about 150 other airline passengers, were leaving Detroit for a long fight to Amsterdam Aug. 20. She carried a book, “My Greatest Mistake,” and a diamond stud shimmered from the top of her left earlobe. She was obviously a 20-something-year-old American with a round face and long California-blond hair, but I would have never guessed she was military.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to guess. Within minutes after takeoff, she was telling her neighbor, a blond man who spoke with a heavy accent, all about her destination – Aviano Air Base, Italy.
Granted, her neighbor had asked where she was going. But instead of giving a safe, generic answer, she went into a great detail about her job, about her enlistment, about the base and local villages. She shared her feelings of being stationed overseas. The man seemed impressed by her excitement.
I was convinced she was coming from tech school, especially when I later saw her carry-on – it was a dark-blue bag with “United States Air Force” printed neatly in bold, gold letters on the top. But, then again, she knew a lot about the Aviano area and the base; maybe she had an awesome sponsor. She must be new, I thought.
Yet, I later saw on her wrist an Italian charm bracelet, exactly the kind they sell at the Aviano base exchange. I knew then that this girl was active duty with some time spent at Aviano.
I doubt she ever had heard the name of Robert Dean Stethem, but she could learn from the incident to which his name is forever tied.
Terrorists hijacked TWA Flight 847 as it left Athens, Greece, for Rome June 14, 1985. Onboard was Petty Officer Stethem, known as Robbie to his friends. He was a 23-year-old U.S. Navy underwater construction diver returning from a diving school in Greece. He sat in the window seat in the last row on the left side of the plane, next to Clinton Suggs, one of his diving buddies.
A few minutes after takeoff, terrorists ran down the aisles, brandishing weapons and demanding all passports and identification. Unfortunately, Robbie and Suggs had only their military identification cards.
According to court documents, Robbie hesitated handing it over, but the terrorists demanded the cards. Robbie, Clinton and a few other military members were then rounded up and taken to first class.
What followed was a 15-hour ordeal as the airliner was flown to Beirut, Lebanon, then to Algiers, Algeria, then back to Beirut. During this time, Robbie was brutally tortured with pistols and an armrest. Kenneth Bowen, another diver held captive, later testified that Robbie received most of the torture.
Things took a turn for the worse during the second stop in Beirut.
When terrorists were unable to negotiate for a refueling truck, they dragged Robbie to the front of the plane and shot him. The terrorists then opened the door of the plane, and as media cameras focused on the open door, they shot Robbie again and dumped his body on the tarmac. Robbie remained alive for a few minutes after being shot and thrown, and then died from his wounds.
The image of the terrorists standing at the open door, with Robbie’s blood smeared on the outside of the plane was published repeatedly on television and in newspapers. It became a symbol of the turbulent political relations between America and the Middle East during the 1980s. The terrorists were from the Middle East, and one of the many reasons they targeted Robbie was because he was U.S. military.
Though this specific incident happened nearly 20 years ago, consider the similarities. Tensions between the American military and the Middle East are high right now. As recently as last month, terrorist groups made threats against Italy and the Italian government.
What if the blond man with the heavy accent had been a terrorist supporter? Or what if, in an effort to save his own life during a hijacking, he pointed the young woman out as U.S. military? What if someone overheard her details about Aviano and took that information to a terrorist group? What if someone was trying to find out if the Amsterdam airport gets a lot of American military traffic? What if someone at the airport saw her Air Force bag and decided to make her a target?
We can’t always predict a terrorist’s action, but we can protect ourselves to the best of our abilities by not revealing information about our jobs, the military, reasons for travel or other information. We should always keep them guessing.