By K. Richard Douglas
Few people have ever had to wonder if the people they share a building with are going to shoot them in the minutes or hours ahead or the next day. It is a situation that keeps the adrenalin pumping and the edginess of the moment unpredictable and uneasy.
Former U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Four (CW4) and biomed Doug Stephens, CBET, founder of Stephens International Recruiting, can attest to the mood when captors are nearby. A stint in Vietnam, as a Marine, would be enough to prepare a lot of soldiers for just about any situation, but it was a duty station in Iran that tested Stephens and his Marine training.
During 1979 through 1981, the world’s attention was focused on 52 captives being held hostage by Iran. That saga lasted 444 days from November 1979 to January 20, 1981, ending just after President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
A year before the hostage crisis, Stephens arrived in Tehran with his wife, Cindy, and then 5-year old daughter, Dianna. The new assignment seemed like a good one to Stephens and he recalls it was a beautiful day, with great weather when they arrived at the Mehrabad Airport.
“My job was to provide biomedical, plant operations and communications support for the hospital and evaluation of biomedical equipment maintenance needs for the U.S. Embassy, Tehran,” he says.
“Also, Tehran hosted some great summer to winter resorts. Needless to say, we loved going to Tehran and, I really did not enjoy the environment in Vietnam,” Doug adds.
He says that the assignment was a great one for a newly promoted Chief Warrant Officer 3.
The environment was quite different than what he remembered of his arrival in Da Nang, Vietnam in 1966, which was extremely hot, very humid and raining hard.
“We went to Tehran with our eyes open, and were warned of the culture shock. Our friends prepared us, for the most part, of what to expect when we arrived,” Doug says.
“Of course, words don’t give the entire picture – not like actually seeing it. There had been ‘incidents’ involving Americans both driving and shopping, so we were told to take all precautions necessary. We believed those incidents happened because they were not careful. We never dreamed our safety would be in question,” he recalls.
The work in the hospital sheltered them to some extent from knowing the brewing political atmosphere and they only really got a heads up from Cindy’s parents who watched demonstrations and signs of political unrest in Iran on the news. In contrast, the U.S. Embassy told them to ignore the news reports and that there was nothing to be concerned about.
Some of the early signs of a cultural shift were the long lines to get gas, which was causing disorder among Iranians. Then, on one trip to the hospital compound, Cindy says that the Iranian security guard, who was new, pointed a rifle directly at Doug. It was the first experience with some tension.
“Realistically, we didn’t know who to trust or not to trust when it came to the Iranians,” Cindy Stephens says. “Even one of our very educated, and trusted, Iranian hospital employees turned out to be one of the Revolutionaries.”
Another time they were having dinner with friends and a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the kitchen window, which luckily did not explode. Outside that day, there were writings painted on a wall that stated “Americans go home” and “death to Americans.”
Near the end of August of 1978, the family of three visited Germany for 10 days to attend a conference and get some shopping in.
“Doug was informed by the U.S. Army HQ Command in Germany that there was indication of more uprising in Tehran, and we were both informed to remain cautious and safe,” Cindy says.
They returned to Tehran around September 3. At that time, the airport and entire city were besieged with Iranian soldiers and tanks. The realization that things had really taken a turn for the worst was evident. Then, Black Friday occurred on September 8, when those protesting the Shah of Iran, were shot and the city fell under martial law with a 6 p.m. curfew every night.
“All the hospital dependents were starting to be evacuated from the hospital in late November and early December 1978,” Doug says. “[In] late December, there was a mass evacuation of all U.S. military and civilian family members, but the hospital was to remain staffed. Cindy remained, as she was in charge of the medical records as the Patient Records Administrator/Patient Assistance Officer, and CHAMPUS Advisor.
Cindy and Dianna were the last of the hospital dependents to leave Tehran. They were to fly out on January 1, but the Revolutionaries threatened to shoot the planes down, and there were reports of gunfire at the planes, so the pilots aborted their mission and returned to Germany. The pilots returned on January 2, 1979, heavily armed, equipped and ready to fight if necessary,” he says.
“On the 16th of January, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was forced to leave Tehran and it was announced that the Ayatollah Khomeini was to return to Iran on February 1, 1979. Now, the protest against the Americans and the Imperial Guard started getting very violent and became too dangerous to be out on the streets,” Doug says.
He says that on February 1, 1979, the Ayatollah returned and things started getting worse. All remaining Americans went into hiding as crowds of protesters searched for them. On February 14, 1979, the revolution started.
“I was in direct communications between the U.S. Embassy and the hospital,” he says. “All our guards fled the compound now, and we became worried that we would be taken away to prison or worse.”
The increasing hostility towards the West finally became very real for Doug as things morphed from rhetoric in the streets to an incursion of the hospital compound. No longer did the compound offer a place of refuge.
“The Mujahedin — called the Islamic Revolutionaries — entered our compound at the U.S. Hospital on February 15, 1979 at 13:30 hours. We all were taken at gun point out into the compound, interrogated, searched, and lined up in front of the compound concrete wall,” Doug says.
“We were a little concerned about our safety at this point. We had no idea what they would do They were young and did not appear to know what they were doing – and they were carrying weapons,” he says. “They immediately spray painted on the wall, ‘Down with Carter.’ They kept us for about four hours in that position and it was a very chilly day.
There were six Revolutionary members of this group and they were searching the hospital for contraband and weapons. They did find one gun, which a Major failed to tell them about, so they lined us up again and we thought for sure we were all going to be shot at that wall,” Doug says.
“But they finally told us to return to our duty assignments and that they would maintain a group at our location. No one could come in or leave the compound,” he adds.
“We were refused any type of communication except between the hospital and U.S. Embassy. However, I had quietly connected a telephone line in my office to call direct to the U.S. (after all, I am a CBET), and I was in direct communications with my wife, Cindy, every day,” Doug says.
“She, in turn, took action since it did not appear the U.S. Embassy was ever going to get us released. She got both of our parents, along with the other wives from the U.S. Army Hospital, to contact state representatives. She personally contacted Congressman John B. Anderson and Missouri Senator John Danforth,” Doug adds.
“On June 20, 1979, the U.S. Embassy finally negotiated our release and 10 of my fellow captives went home. However, the embassy requested that someone retrieve all of the medical records of the American patients and U.S. dignitaries, so I again volunteered to assume that mission of the hospital medical records and send them to Heidelberg, Germany, our Medical Command headquarters. I completed my assignment and was given a flight home on July 18, 1979,” Doug says.
His training as a Marine in Vietnam helped him keep a cool head. He says that two of the group’s leaders, who were university students, even admitted that there were things they enjoyed about Western culture and said they would like to visit the U.S. some day. Those held captive were treated well by their captors. In light of current events, Doug can now contrast the approach of his captors with today’s terrorists.
“I think when you are in a situation like I was, you have to be very quiet, not share your opinion about anything, and respect the people for what they believe in as long as they don’t go so far as to take people hostage and kill people like the radicals are doing today,” he says.
“Our captors never pressed their beliefs on us and vice versa. Most of the time, the 11 of us captives would play cards, read and do some playing of softball and football. The young Revolutionaries eventually joined us and we had an enjoyable time during the last few days we were there – under the circumstances. We had to do what we could to relax and keep busy,” Doug adds.
Today, Cindy is president and CEO of Stephens International Recruiting Inc. and Doug assists with the business.
In his spare time, Doug has maintained the retired 670A/202A Warrant Officer contact list. He continues to promote the military BMET career field as well as professional training for this career field. He is a supporter of the AAMI CBET Certification Program, and had been the sponsor for the 2005, 2012 and 2015 AAMI CBET Study CD.
It was after Cindy and their daughter left Tehran that Doug recounts his wife had a realization regarding freedom.
“Cindy said this is the one time in her life she really felt what it was like to totally be ‘free’ – when they got off the airplane at the Air Force Base in Greece and saw the American flag. She said she felt liberated, and it finally hit her, how truly in danger we all had been,” Doug says.
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