Col. Dave Roeder’s 9-year-old daughter, Dawn, ran right past him as he waited with outstretched arms on the Stewart Airport tarmac.
She was so young and he’d been gone so long that she didn’t recognize him at first. “And I’d lost a whole lot of weight while I was a guest of the Ayatollah,” Roeder says.
But then Dawn felt the tight, warm embrace her father had hoped, dreamed and waited for so long, and which quickly enveloped his wife, Susie, and their 15-year-old son, Jimmy, as well.
Roeder, now 81, was among the 52 brave Americans who endured 444 days of brutal captivity during the Iran Hostage Crisis, which began with the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979 and lasted more than 14 months until their release on Jan. 20, 1981.
Five days later, following medical evaluations in West Germany, the world watched as the hostages set foot on American soil. As their first step in a hero’s welcome home, tens of thousands of flag-waving admirers cheered them along the 17-mile route between Stewart Airport and West Point, where the hostages spent several days reuniting with loved ones in the peace and safety of the Hotel Thayer’s comfortable surroundings.
“That time at West Point was invaluable,” Susie Roeder says. “I don’t know how we would have done it otherwise. It was a real whirlwind; intense is a good word for it. It was exhausting. It was nice not to have to go home immediately and be thrust back in the middle of things.”
“The atmosphere was electric,” says 89-year-old June Eazzetta, whose late husband, Benedict, was Highland Falls’ mayor at the time. “It was so American. Everyone was singing God Bless America and waving to the hostages. It was such a patriotic type of thing. Everybody had a yellow bow on. All the cars had bows. We used up all the yellow material around the whole area. I even put one on my little poodle.”
Mary Lou Conley had a bird’s-eye view of the jubilant celebration from her second-story perch inside the USAA Insurance building where she worked, right outside West Point’s Thayer Gate. She and co-worker Nancy Scherwitz were enlisted to help CNN and CBS News crews, who set up headquarters there to broadcast the event around the world. Photographers stood on window ledges and rooftops to capture it on film.
“The whole West Point Highway was packed with people and lined with flags and yellow ribbons, lamp poles, everything,” Conley says.
“To this day it gives me goose bumps,” Scherwitz says. “It was just unbelievable to think what courage those people had. I remember thinking how happy I was that they really made it out safely and that we as a country pulled together and were able to do something to help these people, to save them.”
June Patterson, now Town of Highlands town clerk, watched with fellow Highland Falls Middle School eighth-graders. “It was really a life-changing event to go to, especially as a kid,” she says. “There were tons of people; it was crazy. I watched the buses coming, it was awesome, so cool. I also remember it being a really humbling experience. I couldn’t imagine what those people had gone through.”
Five days later, she saw the hostages again, this time while standing on a wooden traffic horse to get a better view during a ticker-tape parade through Lower Manhattan’s “Canyon of Heroes.”
Twenty-one of the 52 hostages took part in the NYC parade, but Col. Roeder wasn’t among them. Like many others, he just wanted to go home to Virginia.
Col. Roeder was the first one off the plane at Stewart Airport. After being cut off from the world for so long, he was genuinely surprised at the tremendous outpouring of love, pride and joyful adoration for the hostages.
“All of a sudden there were people everywhere, waving flags, it was just incredible,” he says. “I can’t say that we anticipated that at all. It was kind of a shocking thing. Everybody was talking about heroes. We weren’t heroes. We didn’t do anything except our job. The only reason we got in trouble is that we were Americans.”
Col. Roeder went to Tehran in late October 1979, only eight days before the embassy takeover, assigned there as assistant Air Force attache.
The situation was already tense as the Iranian Revolution was well under way. The embassy had been attacked and briefly occupied on Feb. 14, 1979, and, on Nov. 1, just three days before the takeover, Iranian police diverted a large crowd of protestors away from it.
The Shah of Iran left his country in early 1979, leading to creation of an Islamic republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In October, the Shah was allowed entry to the U.S. for cancer treatment, igniting protests among revolutionaries who demanded his return to Iran. President Jimmy Carter’s refusal angered militants even more.
But neither Col. Roeder nor his wife, Susie, realized the suffering and agonizing separation the revolution would lead to. They’d already sacrificed a great deal during the Vietnam War. Apart for months on end, Susie was at home while her husband flew more than 100 dangerous B-52 bombing and F-105 fighter plane missions in the skies over North Vietnam.
Col. Roeder says his arrival at the Tehran airport was a like scene from the 2012 movie Argo, which recounts how CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), posing as a film producer, exfiltrated — with help from Canadian embassy officials — six hostages who had escaped during the takeover.
“I had a black diplomatic passport,” Col. Roeder recalls. “The guard looked at it, went over and talked to somebody else. They went into a back room, there was a lot of talk going back and forth, and 20 minutes later they came out and said, ‘OK, you can go.’”
Roeder spent the first couple days with his boss, Col. Tom Schaefer. “We were sitting up on the roof and there was gunfire going off all over the city,” Col. Roeder says. “November 1 was my daughter’s birthday. So I called home from there and said, ‘I’m not sure what I’ve gotten myself into here.’ Then, of course, a few days later everything went to hell.”
Both he and Schaefer were among the Americans taken hostage when demonstrators stormed the embassy on November 4. Roeder’s captivity included 63 days of solitary confinement.
“I’m not very big on telling war stories,” he says. “It was not a pleasant experience. I carry the scars from my hostage experience because I wasn’t very popular with my captors. I can show you what a rubber hose beating looks like.”
But he wears such physical reminders like a badge of honor, with a grim sense of pride, knowing that he never broke or gave in to his captors’ demands.
“During one of the interrogations, they neglected to handcuff me a to a chair,” Col. Roeder says. “I don’t remember what one of them asked me, but I hit him. The next thing I know the chair went over backwards. It wasn’t very good for the next 10 minutes. Then they put me in the slammer. They’d beat me about every other day. You felt like you were an animal. When you were in solitary, it was usually a result of something you did, or something they wanted you to do and you wouldn’t.”
“But that’s when you can convince yourself that you’re winning,” he says. “I was proud of being in solitary because I knew I had to have done something serious enough for them to react like that.”
Following Operation Eagle Claw, the failed hostage rescue mission that resulted in the death of eight U.S. servicemen on Apr. 24, 1980, Roeder was taken to a dozen different locations, usually in the trunk of a car. Hostages were constantly moved around and kept separate to prevent another rescue attempt.
At one point, because he was a highly decorated officer, the Iranians announced to the world that they were going to put Col. Roeder on trial for his Vietnam combat record, and invite the North Vietnamese. “Well, I’m sure you realize no one survives a trial in Iran,” he says.
The threat was never carried out, which Roeder attributes to God’s protective power that he says sustained him through this and every other trial. “You could not believe how much that meant,” he says. “There were times when I said, ‘My God, I’m not going to make it here.’ I would ask God for help. He never let me down.”
“At West Point, one of the things that impressed me most was the chapel. It’s incredibly beautiful,” he says. “We did all kinds of things. We went to a basketball game against Navy. We had one or two opportunities to eat with the Corps of Cadets. That was kind of neat. They didn’t quite know what to do with this Air Force colonel.”
After getting settled, the first thing some hostages did was head into Highland Falls in search of the nearest pizza joint.
From West Point, the hostages were flown to Washington, D.C. for a private White House reception with President Ronald and First Lady Nancy Reagan, followed by ceremonies on the South Lawn. Reagan took a personal interest in Col. Roeder’s plight because of the Iranians’ highly publicized threats of a trial.
“He walked up, looked at my name tag, and said, ‘Roeder! I know all about you!’ Well don’t worry, colonel. You’re now a free American,’” Roeder recalls.
Col. Roeder’s one lament on the 40th anniversary of his release is that many young people have no idea about the Iran Hostage Crisis. Even to older Americans it’s somewhat forgotten.
“The 40th anniversary [Nov. 4, 2019]of our being taken hostage went by without fanfare, nobody even mentioned it,” Roeder says. “We thought somebody would say, ‘Forty years ago today the Hostage Crisis started.’ It didn’t happen. If you get a mention at all in some of the history books, it’s very brief. It’s not taught in schools. If you find somebody under 40 who knows about the Iran Hostage situation or the Eagle Claw rescue attempt, that surprises me.”
Army Major (ret.) John Dodson, (U.S. Military Academy ’68) also served in Iran and narrowly escaped before the embassy takeover. A former West Point professor, he shares Col. Roeder’s concerns that lessons weren’t learned or are in danger of being forgotten.
“We’ve let our history slip,” Dodson says. “America is a bubble. It’s so safe compared to most of the world. In America you can do almost anything you want to, any time you want to do it. It’s a very special place. It really is the leader of the world. If you let that slip away, you’re not going to get it again.”
Roeder has done a great deal of public speaking to keep this message alive. But unlike many decorated veterans, he doesn’t need reminders about the most difficult time in his life.
“A lot of Air Force guys, particularly fighter pilots, have ‘me’ rooms where they display their awards and memorabilia,” he says. “I don’t have one of those. I have all the stuff that should go in one, but it’s in boxes in the basement. I’ve moved on, I guess, is what I’m saying.”