Returning to work after celebrating his 30th birthday the day before, then-Staff Sgt. James ‘O’Neil’ Hughes could see a growing group of disorderly demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Embassy.
Chanting and singing, the bellicose crowd grew agitated. They held up signs displaying anti-American slogans and began to burn American flags.
Demonstrations and small rioting were a normal occurrence in Tehran, Iran, in 1979. Political tensions were reaching a fever pitch after the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was admitted to hospital care in the U.S.
Just months before, the shah was overthrown in a revolution by his own people. To anti-Shah Iranians it seemed the U.S. was now giving shelter to a monarch it had been backing for decades. The Iranians, angered, demanded the cancer-stricken ex-ruler return to face their judgment in-country.
“There were demonstrations every day. Sometimes hundreds of people, sometimes thousands,” Hughes said. “So there was nothing new, that morning, in seeing a demonstration take place. When they came over the walls and into the embassy; that was the part that was new.”
Anticipating the draft during the Vietnam War, Hughes preferred being proactive and joined the branch of his choice, the Air Force. After tours in Vietnam and at Langley Air Force Base, Va., he was stationed in Germany. There, the New Orleans native volunteered to fill a position at the embassy in his capacity as administrative manager. He went to Iran, unknowing that he would become part of history.
As the usual turned into the shockingly dangerous, tensions in the building ran high. There was no escape.
For three hours, militants fought the small group of Marine guards, who used tear gas to prevent bloodshed and to win just enough time for secret documents to be destroyed.
Eventually, some of the mob finally overran the embassy, finding an access point vulnerable to attack, invading and occupying the grounds as the Iranian revolutionary guard and local police stood and watched.
“They came in, searched us and took all of our possessions,” Hughes recalled. “Then they blindfolded us, and tied our hands behind our backs.”
The American hostages were then marched out onto the embassy’s front steps, presented in triumph beside a burning U.S. flag.
Robbed of orientation, Hughes was taken to what he remembers as the ambassador’s quarters.
“I was tied up to a chair and spent almost 16 days blindfolded, isolated and went through different types of interrogations,” he said. Sometime his hands would fall numb from being tied so tightly.
The captors realized their power over their victims and treatment grew even harsher. Between long periods of being restrained and only allowed short restroom breaks, Hughes and others suffered beatings, mock executions and were threatened with trial at the hands of the militants.
Wanting to know about his job and embassy workings, the militants pressured the airman for information. Even though he was never formally trained for evasion and resistance, Hughes stuck to giving his name, rank and serial number, repeating the same line when questioned.
Then, during one of the torturous sessions, he felt a pistol against his temple and heard the click as the hammer was cocked.
“I actually believed they were going to kill me,” he said. “I thought my life was going to end there, blindfolded in a chair. At that moment I thought, ‘This is the end of my life, right now.’ You don’t envision your life ending this way until it happens.”
While Hughes didn’t lose his life, he said it was a moment he will never forget and he nonetheless lost part of himself forever.
“I can’t describe what it is,” he said. “But I lost something when he did that. And I’ve never been able to get it back. It changed me.”
So the days went on; mostly in the dark, his eyes covered with cloth, Hughes could hardly tell if somebody was in the room with him. Communication was strictly forbidden. After short hours of sleep on the ground, Hughes recalled that usually in the morning the hostages were fed bread and some goat cheese. Later in the day they received their daily staple of rice with peas and water.
“In our culture we always need some background noise, so it was difficult not knowing what was going on around you,” he said. “Then, when they did remove the blindfold, the windows were taped over with newspaper so you didn’t even know what time of day it was.”
What kept the then-30-year-old going through the days in the dark, were thoughts of his son and family, he said.
“I was worried. Was I ever going to see them again? Am I ever going to see my son grow up?” Hughes said. “I tried to think that I was going to be free, there’s going to be rescue and one day it might get better.”
The young father was anxious, but hope kept his spirits up.
The forgotten 13
After 16 days, Iranian leaders, claiming they felt sympathetic for suppressed minorities, unexpectedly decided to release 13 detainees. Hughes was among the five women and eight African-American men who were freed and returned, via Germany, to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on Thanksgiving Day 1979.
Fifty-two prisoners remained in Iran for a total of 444 days despite rescue attempts by the United States.
First not believing the release would really come true at all, the attempt by the Iranians to divide along gender and racial lines didn’t sit well with the sergeant. He knew he was being used for propaganda purposes.
However, they were never asked and staying was not an option.
“That bothered me,” Hughes said. “We were military members. We never wanted any special favors just because of the color of our skin. In the military we never leave anyone behind. I felt guilty.”
Stepping off the plane, Hughes hugged his three-year-old son as cameras snapped around him. News outlets tried to capture his story, but the sergeant, like others who were released early, remained tight-lipped out of fear of jeopardizing the safety of the remaining hostages still held in Iran.
“I isolated myself from it,” he said of declining participation in interviews. “I just turned the key and shut down.”
After a short period of leave, Hughes put on a fresh uniform and returned to duty at Langley AFB, Va. He tried not to dwell on his experience, he said, and returned to everyday life, carrying the weight of the experience with him.
In captivity, Hughes suffered a swollen lip and bruises. Nothing, he said, compared to what POWs in other conflicts endured. Hughes knows he was lucky in a way, but doesn’t wish the experience on anybody.
Today, the husband and father doesn’t usually talk about what happened during the long days in Tehran, and when he does, his narrative is succinct and unembellished. Talking about his ordeal is still difficult.
“Not a lot of people even know what happened to me and I don’t go into great detail when I do tell about it,” he added.
Sometimes, his wife Jodi, who met him long after the hostage crisis, just has to hand him a glass of water and a sleeping pill when bad dreams return or he just can’t seem to quit thinking.
Jodi slowly learned how to deal with her husband’s problems.
“At first he wouldn’t tell me much. So I was trying to study him,” she said. “And I encouraged him to continue to seek help. I knew he didn’t like talking about it, but it was good to get it out.”
Years later, he has now been diagnosed with PTSD from his experience as a hostage and received help in dealing with the deep-seated trauma from specialists with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The VA therapists helped me look at (my experience) as just a small piece of the pie,” Hughes said. “How to not let the memories dominate my life. I couldn’t ask for better help.”
Delayed but not forgotten
Thirty-two years after the incident, Hughes accepted the Prisoner of War Medal, Aug. 22 at Fort Logan National Cemetery, Denver, Colo., where he continues his service as a staff assistant, ensuring that the last “salute” to Veterans is handled with care.
“It’s something special in my career, really.” he said. “We have 88,000 headstones here, and every single one has its own story.”
Standing in front of families and friends, Hughes, overwhelmed with emotions and in tears, broke his silence and told his own story to captivated listeners.
“He really didn’t want to be in the public eye,” Jodi said of her husband’s initial refusal to accept the medal. “But it means a lot to him and I think it healed some of the wounds that he felt. Nothing will ever change what happened, but letting them know has been good for him.”
Receiving the medal in a military ceremony was indeed a moment of healing, Hughes said.
“I feel some relief; it was kind of therapeutic for me to have the ceremony,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with this for a long time.”
Behind the scenes
While it seemed history had passed him by, Hughes was unaware of the efforts behind the scenes, and took the long wait for recognition in stride.
“It took a lot of effort of people that I don’t know to finally make this happen, and eventually get the medal to us.” Hughes said. “It was not my initiative. I didn’t even know until the medal showed up in the mail back in November.”
One of those behind the scenes was Will Brown, the chief of the Air Force Evaluations and Recognitions Programs branch at the Air Force Personnel Center in San Antonio, Texas. After 22 years of service in the active-duty Air Force, Brown retired as a master sergeant only to continue his service for airmen.
“We immediately saw some possible irregularities regarding why the individuals weren’t awarded POW medals,” Brown said. “Subsequently we discovered that the package was already approved in 2003.”
Brown, however, knew the recipients had never been informed. While his office did not have the historical background of what happened to the request, they finally located the approved package and the medal was sent to a surprised Hughes in late 2011.
“Unfortunately the package was misplaced, and we never received it to take the final actions,” said Brown. “We wanted to make sure we take care of our veterans and ensure that they receive the proper recognition they truly deserve.”
While not often, such problems may occur during personnel changes and office moves, explained Brown, whose office processes recognition requests for medals such as the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Air Force Crosses and many others. Some happen to be delayed by decades, something that Brown then tries to remedy.
“We deal with requests that date all the way back to World War II in some instances,” he said. “The satisfaction for me is when you can see everything through to completion and see the proper recognition given. Just seeing that the families are receiving the recognition for their love one is, for me, ‘thank you’ enough.”
Continuing to serve on active duty until his retirement as a master sergeant in 1992, Hughes even returned to work at embassies in Malaysia, Turkey and Israel – never expecting any reward or recognition for his involvement.
“I did not try to get any type of medals for what I went through,” the Vietnam veteran said. “It was part of my service. It happen to me and that’s just the way it was. But I moved on and I continued to serve. My whole career was an achievement to me and I was always proud of being part of the service for my country.”