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U.S. Hostages Held In Iran For 444 Days Finally To Get Compensated

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now a story about Iran that cropped up in an unlikely place. Inside this year's huge spending bill on Capitol Hill was a reminder of America's complicated relationship with that country. Tucked among the payments to special interest groups was what you might call a Christmas surprise - a provision that would compensate each of the 53 Americans taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

ROCKY SICKMANN: It is wonderful that after 36 years, one month, 14 days, we've got President Obama signing the law, this bill, a piece of justice.

GREENE: Justice for Rocky Sickmann. That's his voice there. He and other Americans were held for 444 days during the Iran hostage crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Protesting Iranian students are occupying the American Embassy in Tehran. The demonstrators got past marine guards at the embassy and are now holding hostages.

GREENE: Rocky Sickmann was a 22-year-old Marine sergeant stationed at the U.S. Embassy. He spoke to us yesterday from Missouri. And just a warning, some of you might find parts of his story disturbing. Sickmann was just getting off work that morning on November, 4 when he saw a massive crowd pushing through the embassy gates.

SICKMANN: I was walking into the (unintelligible) gate. David, I'll never forget - my walkie-talkie hashed recall, recall, which means report back immediately. And I look at the front gate, and I'll never forget the two Iranian guards that were on guard duty that morning protecting that gate. I take off back to the main embassy building where all of our gear and our weapons are, and Billy Gallegos, one of the other Marines on guard duty that morning, saw me being chased. He allowed me to slip back in, we closed the steel door. And your heart is pounding because everything that you had trained for was now taking place. So Billy calls and says, hey, they've broken through the basement window. And sure enough, I'm the closest to the steps. I run down stairs. And here's Billy and I - 22-year-old Marines - and our orders were don't fire, don't antagonize. And you have no idea, David - after we gave our self up that day, it burnt. It hurt so bad that you wished that you pulled that trigger that day on November, 4. And obviously, that started the next 444 days. And, David, 36 years, one month, 14 days is when President Obama finally signed that piece of justice.

GREENE: You literally count - have counted - I mean, you just said a very specific time frame. You have been counting the days for this moment, it sounds like.

SICKMANN: It will never remove the mock firing squads. It will never remove the smells and the sounds. And we went outside 7 times out of 444 days. And, you know, the difficulty my poor parents had to go through that...

GREENE: And you said mock firing squads? That's what you had to suffer through?

SICKMANN: Oh, yes. Yeah, at the very beginning, David, the Iranians, obviously, they were using us as a token. And, you know, they told us this. They said, it's not you the American people we hate, it's your government. But we will use you to humiliate your government. And they have done it for 36 years. And like I said, I wish that I could have pulled that trigger on November, 4 of 1979, but again, being a good soldier, I followed my directions.

GREENE: That might be a hard thing for some people to hear you say, that you wish that you had pulled that trigger and killed some people to prevent, you know, you from having to go through those 444 days.

SICKMANN: Yeah, well, trust me it's - you had that on your mind that very first day. And you know what? How Billy and I didn't, you know, go against our orders, how we didn't slip. I mean, here's a 22-year-old Marine - our hormones, our emotions were just fast-paced that morning. And, again, we followed our directions. But as you went through that first 30 days being tied and not allowed to speak and the next 400, you just regretted not ever doing it because, you know, at least you would have given them something that you would have liked to have given them. But, you know, again, I followed my directions.

GREENE: Can I just ask you where you were when you got this news, how you got the news and what your reaction was?

SICKMANN: Yeah, it wasn't until Friday when I was driving down a road that I got word that he did sign it because this whole piece of this bill has been - it was like being held hostage because every day they'd say, yeah, things are getting closer. And bills would come and then they would leave. And so you just - you didn't believe it. And all of a sudden, I got the word and I pulled over and I cried on the side of the road - just the emotions of everything that's taken, you know, through the whole piece. I mean, it was very, very difficult. And obviously, there's still a lot of work yet to be done, David. But, you know, it was a piece within, you know, myself and then also like I said, for the difficulty of my parents and eight men lost their life in a rescue operation, also. And it was very difficult knowing that those individuals were lost to save my freedom.

GREENE: Do you know how much money you'll be getting?

SICKMANN: You know, the number is out there. I think it was $10,000 a day, which is a formula that has been used. So I think it's about 4.4 million. But again, we will be paying, obviously, the attorney fees and everything else. But a lot of work has still got to be done here and when it happens, it'll be wonderful.

GREENE: What would you do with the money?

SICKMANN: Well, obviously my wife and I would do a lot of different things. I work for a wonderful company that we give back to military men and women and, I mean, it's just - there's a lot of things that we want to do and it's going to be difficult to really figure out what until the time comes. But right now, life continues as it was before.

GREENE: It does sound like the kind of news that would be great any time but especially around the holidays. What a wonderful present to get.

SICKMANN: Yeah, no, it definitely is. And, you know, it's wonderful, like I said, to be with my family and be able to share the news. You know, we spent two Christmases over in Iran never knowing if we would ever be back with our loved ones and, you know, here we are. And it's something that as we continue to talk about the men and women that serve our country, we shouldn't forget about those men and women each and every day.

GREENE: Well Sergeant Sickmann, it's been a pleasure, and have a great Christmas.

SICKMANN: Thank you, Sir. Bye-bye.

GREENE: Marine Sergeant Rocky Sickmann, one of the 53 Americans held hostage in Iran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.