Unfinished business for former Iran hostage

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WASHINGTON — He was my hostage. I was his reporter.

After 444 days as one of 52 hostages held captive in Tehran, seized by Iranian militants, Marine Sgt. Paul Lewis was released on Jan. 20, 1981. Lewis was soon back in Homer, the small Illinois town about 20 miles east of Champaign-Urbana where he was raised. The day after the town threw Lewis a parade, I interviewed him in his parents’ living room about his ordeal.

Months earlier, I was assigned Lewis as “my” hostage. Any time there was a possibility of a release — and there were multiple false starts — I would race south on I-57 from Chicago and camp out, with other journalists, in the Homer restaurant run by Lewis’ Aunt Shirley to get the latest and, of course, to be there when he returned.

Now, 34 years later, Lewis reached out to me.

He wanted to talk about the hostages’ decadeslong battle to secure compensation from Iran. You may be shocked to learn there is still unfinished business left over from the Iranian hostage crisis, triggered on Nov. 4, 1979, when Iranians seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

The 1981 deal between Iran and the State Department that freed the captives, called the Algiers Accords, banned the hostages from seeking damages, though they were never a party to the agreement and clearly the U.S. was acting under duress.

An effort by the hostages to work around the Algiers Accords has been thwarted by U.S. courts, the State Department and a Congress taking forever to act.

I’m picking up the story where I left off.

After Lewis returned, he married a woman from Homer later in 1981, finished school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and raised, with wife Kristi, two sons, now 25 and 29. The 57-year-old Lewis, an investment adviser, is speaking to me on the phone from his office in Champaign.

Giving the hostages their due — something many other U.S. victims of international violence have received through the years — “will certainly put some of this aside and get some closure to this event,” Lewis tells me.

There are 39 hostages still alive, including Lewis, and they try to keep their cause in the news. They talked about their nightmare when the movie “Argo,” about six embassy staffers who escaped, was released and won an Oscar for best picture in 2013. But nothing happened.

With another news peg — the U.S. and its “P5+1” partners are negotiating with Iran over a pact to prevent Iran from making a nuclear weapon — Lewis got in touch to discuss their plight and the lingering impact of his time in captivity.

Lewis was 22 and in Tehran less than a day at the time of his capture. The Iranians thought he was a spy because embassy staff did not know him and his name wasn’t on any embassy roster.

He was handcuffed, bound and blindfolded for long periods. There were “times when I was scared out of my mind.” He faced a mock firing squad, food that made him gag.

“When we were first caught, I just tried to sleep the whole thing away and that just made me feel depressed; just can’t sleep for weeks and months. And at some point, I spent a lot of time alone. You have time to think. I thought, ‘Are you going to give up and roll over and let this thing kill you?’ I decided I was going to get through it.”

So what’s happened in 34 years?

Lewis discovered after his return that he had “developed an exaggerated startled response.”

Small things set him off.

At a restaurant Lewis needs to sit at a corner table, and he avoids the middle of a room because “it’s still troubling for me to have a lot of things moving around behind my back.”

Lewis eventually had surgeries for dislocated shoulders. The smell of tea sparks “strange feelings.” He has a troubling recurring dream that “I am back there and then I wake up to find out I am really home.”

Tom Lankford, the attorney representing the hostages since 1999, said, “I think Paul has bottled up a lot of things.”

For several years, measures have been pending in Congress to create a compensation fund for the hostages and their families. To get around the Algiers Accords, the money would come from fines and penalties collected from violations of the U.S.-Iran sanctions law. The aim is for $4.4 million for each hostage.

Leading this effort in the Senate is Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. On Friday, Isakson told me he has bipartisan support for his legislation and it is stuck for factors not related to the substance of getting the hostages “compensated for what they went through.”

Said Isakson, “These people went through hell for 444 days.”

It’s time to take care of the unfinished business.

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