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Former Iran Hostages Mark 20 Years

AP National Writer

January 19, 2001 (AP) -- Amid the pomp of Saturday's inauguration of President-elect Bush, Bruce Laingen can be excused for thinking about another inauguration, 20 years ago. Photos (1) (2)

It was on the very day that Ronald Reagan was sworn in that Laingen was freed with 51 other Americans who had been held hostage for 444 days at the U.S. Embassy in Iran.

These days, Laingen says, what he savors is ``the fact that you're a free person. That you're freedom is restored, that I look forward to walking out in the rain. Without an umbrella, if necessary.''

Enough years have gone by that some of the former hostages have no interest in marking the 20th anniversary. Moorhead Kennedy Jr., 70 and retired to Mount Desert Island, Maine, confides that it was hard enough to recall his wedding anniversary.

Kennedy ran the embassy's economic and commercial section on Nov. 4, 1979, the Sunday morning when Muslim militants stormed in, enraged that President Carter had admitted Iran's ousted shah to the United States for cancer treatment.

For Kennedy, that was a lifetime ago, when he cared about status.

``There you are with other people defining you, and all of a sudden you're lined up against a wall in a mock execution and you see your real self instead of the self the world imposes on you,'' he says.

Back in this country, he set new priorities. He lectured, worked with corporations, wrote a book and started preaching.

``I've often said, I would never want to go through it again. But I'm awfully glad I did,'' he says.

Sometimes the nightmares come back. Like the one where the State Department sends him back to captivity, but in an old summertime hotel in Maine. ``I live with it perfectly well,'' he says with a chuckle.

No ex-hostage has been back to Iran, despite overtures from former captors, says Laingen, who now heads the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, a society of retired ambassadors and secretaries of state.

Now 78, Laingen was the embassy mission chief when he was taken hostage. It was his wife, Penne, who tied a yellow ribbon to an oak in their yard, inspired by a popular song from six years earlier, ``Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.''

The Tony Orlando and Dawn song was about a prisoner's homecoming, but the ribbon started a late-20th century custom of forget-me-not ribbons - red for AIDS (news - web sites), pink for breast cancer.

In 1991, the Laingens donated the large vinyl bow to the Library of Congress.

He would like to see hard feelings between this country and Iran put away as well.

``It is deeply regrettable that 20 years later we have no official relations with Iran,'' Laingen says. ``I personally feel very strongly that some way has to be found for both countries to put all this behind them and get on with a formal relationship, or at least a dialogue to clear the air.''

Another former hostage, Kathryn Koob, 62, of Waverly, Iowa, teaches forgiveness on a more personal scale. She is now an adjunct professor at Wartburg College.

``I talk about the fact that breaking the cycle of violence is important for healing to take place,'' she says. ``And that bitterness and anger that are harbored tend to destroy you.''

A day after the siege began, Koob was kidnapped and brought to the embassy from the Iran-America Center she ran nearby. She stayed with the Foreign Service until retirement in 1996 led her home.

Captivity turned Koob inward, with prayer and meditation both salve and salvation. She later earned a master's degree in religion.

While the former hostages keep in touch, their only reunion was 10 years ago when a magazine wanted a group picture. A private reunion in the Washington area is tentatively scheduled to take place in a couple of weeks.

Of the 52, about a half-dozen have died. One was Richard Ode, the oldest hostage. He survived to 80 and died five years ago in Arizona.

The youngest of the hostages was Kevin Hermening. Then a Marine Corps embassy guard, he turned 21 as a hostage. Now 41, he is a partner at a financial planning firm in Wausau, Wis.

Married, with two young daughters, Hermening is treasurer of the school board and ran two failed campaigns for state Legislature and Congress.

``I've kind of graduated from `ex-hostage.' When I'm in the paper now, it's 'school board member' or 'financial planner,''' he says.

Twenty years after his release, Hermening will be on a vacation cruise in the Caribbean. ``I'm going to sleep in,'' he says.

- On the Net: Laingen's foreign service society: //


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