After their release, the 52 Americans held captive in Tehran spent a few days at the hospital at Wiesbaden Air Base in Germany, where this group photo was taken, before returning to the United States. Rocky Sickmann, then a sergeant, is second from right in the first row. (Johnson Babela)
Then-Sgt. Rocky Sickmann, far right, visits with President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, following his ordeal. (Johnson Babela)
Iranian protesters take and burn the American flag at the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979. (Courtesy of Rodney 'Rocky' Sickmann)
Months before becoming a Marine security guard, Sickmann was deployed to the Mediterranean when his unit was put on alert to provide security for the U.S. Embassy in Tehran following an attack. They moved to helicopter carriers and were set to assist with evacuating about 20,000 Americans there, but never got orders to take off.
It has been 34 years since Rocky Sickmann’s life changed forever. The former Marine security guard became one of 66 Americans held captive in Tehran — 52 of them for 444 days — during the Iran hostage crisis. On the anniversary of that dark period, the mission for Marines protecting U.S. diplomatic posts around the world remains dangerous.
After three years in the Corps, Sickmann, a sergeant, moved to the Embassy Security Group’s schoolhouse in Quantico, Va. He arrived at his first duty post in Tehran in October.
On the morning of Nov. 4, he left the compound to prepare for the Marine Corps birthday ball. Although he saw a demonstration, he didn’t think much of it, he said; protests were common. It quickly became all too clear that this one was different, however.
Two men climbed over the front gate with wire cutters, but the Iranian guards responsible for securing the outer perimeter returned to their huts like nothing was happening, he said. Sickmann ran back to the embassy to try to secure the compound, but security had been breached.
“I knew it was a staged takeover and there was no hope,” he said.
Eight troops died during a failed rescue mission in 1980.
Q. What were your days in captivity like?
A. We were raped of our freedom, dignity and pride for 444 days. For the first month, we weren’t allowed to speak. Our hands were tied and we were put in the corner of a room. We sat there from morning to night, and then they would tie your hands to your ankles. It was very lonely. It was 1979. The Vietnam War had just ended, and Americans spit on those veterans. So you’re sitting there thinking, “Who’s going to remember Rocky Sickmann in a foreign embassy in Iran? Nobody.” We had no idea that the whole country had reunited to try to get 52 people released.
Q. What helped get you through the toughest days?
A. Eventually they moved us, so I was with two other guys, and the camaraderie helped. Some hostages were in solitary confinement. I can’t imagine what it was like to be by yourself for 444 days. We tried to keep each other up — one day, I would be up and the others would be down and vice versa. I would also run books, movies, sporting events and memories through my head. And your training came back. In boot camp, you wonder why they teach you how to live with water out of a sink in the back of the squad bay, rinsing out your clothes with a bar of soap, but that’s how we stayed clean.
Q. What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome when you returned?
A. Being alone. I can remember I didn’t want to be in a quiet atmosphere because it was like that for 444 days. And thinking that eight people died because they wanted to rescue me. They all had families and they did it without even knowing me. That drove me to want to serve not only the troops, but the families. Now I work as the director of military sales for Anheuser-Busch. We have the Folds of Honor organization that gives scholarships to families of fallen and disabled vets.
Q. What was it like to see the movie “Argo,” which depicted the takeover of the embassy?
A. When it first started, my legs started twitching. My wife asked if I was OK and I said, “I know the sounds and I know what’s going to happen, but I can’t do anything about it.” You want to be able to do something to change what happened. They had to show a quick takeover to get to the movie. But it actually took hours for them to get in, and the takeover really came from the basement.
Q. What goes through your mind all these years later, when you hear about embassy closures or threats to diplomatic posts around the world?
A. It hurts. I don’t want to come off as radical, but there are signs all around every American embassy that say if you cross this gate, there is a possibility you will be shot. We haven’t stood up to this. We had four Iranian women coming through the halls of the basement and behind them were men pushing them forward, using them as shields. I hate to say it, but I regret to this day not ever pulling a trigger on Nov. 4, 1979. We need to start showing our enemy that we mean business.