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Former US hostage in Iran shares compelling tale of captivity

Paul Needham talks about his experience as a hostage in Iran at Ramstein's National POW-MIA Recognition Week luncheon on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. Needham, now a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, spent 444 days in captivity.

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Paul Needham’s temporary assignment to Iran in 1979 ended 19 days after he arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where he worked as an Air Force logistics officer.

A 28-year-old captain at the time, Needham, now a retired lieutenant colonel, ended up spending more than a year in Iran, one of dozens of Americans taken prisoner and held for 444 days by Iranian militants.

Turns out, U.S. military personnel lose their temporary duty status when they’re considered a prisoner of war or missing in action, Needham lightheartedly told a captive crowd of more than 100 airmen and civilians who heard him speak Wednesday at a special luncheon at the Ramstein Officers’ Club.

" 'Let’s see, you received a cash advance; your TDY stopped on the fourth of November … you owe us,’ ” Needham related a conversation with Air Force finance after his ordeal ended, drawing loud laughs from attendees.

Needham was the guest speaker for one of three events organized this week by the 435th Air Ground Operations Wing at Ramstein to remember those who were prisoners of war and those who are missing in action, as well as their families. National POW/MIA Recognition Day is observed across the United States on Friday. The unit will host a wreath-laying ceremony Friday at 4 p.m. at the River Rats Memorial behind the officers club.

Needham is now a white-haired 62-year-old professor of logistics and director of the Supply Chain Management Program at the Dwight D. Eisenhower School of National Security and Resource Strategy in Washington, D.C. In 2011, he was one of six airmen taken hostage at the embassy to receive the Prisoner of War Medal.

Though Needham peppered his speech with much humor, his story conveyed the resiliency of the human spirit in overcoming days filled mostly with monotony, hunger and occasionally terror.

“One of the things that you learn is … you’re counting from one to infinity,” he said. “You don’t know” how many days captivity will last.

Needham was one of 65 Americans taken hostage on Nov. 4, 1970 when hundreds of Iranian militants overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Earlier that year, U.S.-Iranian relations first began to sour when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, an absolute monarch and American ally, was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic-dominated Revolutionary Council.

Needham arrived in Tehran in October of that year to help deliver spare military parts to Iran.

Soon after, relations between the two countries took a nose dive when the United States allowed the ailing shah to receive medical treatment at a New York hospital despite demands from Tehran that he be extradited to stand trial for crimes allegedly committed during his 37-year rule. Iran’s new Islamic government viewed the U.S. action as paving the way for a U.S.-backed attempt to restore the monarchy.

The Iranians were concerned because in 1953 the United States and Britain conducted a covert campaign to destabilize the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who opposed Britain’s control of Iran’s petroleum revenues. Mosaddegh was eventually overthrown in a military coup organized by the CIA.

“November 4th started out as a normal day,” Needham said, recalling that he was writing a letter that morning to a logistics officer in Los Angeles. “There were demonstrations outside; then it changed,” he said. “At 9 o’clock that morning, the Iranians came over the wall and the national police stood aside.”

Some hostages were later released, leaving 52 to endure the full 444 days in captivity, Needham said.

Needham lost 30 pounds during the ordeal. He and others combatted boredom by doing pushups in their tight cells and running in place. They became skilled at snaring cockroaches and racing them, the losing insect getting squashed.

Some days were terrifying, like the time he was targeted by a mock firing squad.

“I was shaking uncontrollably,” he said. “I said the 23rd Psalm to myself. I felt a calmness come over me. I’m sure it was the presence of Christ. I quit shaking.”

Needham saw the movie “Argo,” the Oscar-winning Ben Affleck flick that told the story of how the Canadian government and the CIA managed to rescue six American diplomats from Tehran after the embassy takeover.

Needham said the film is about 80 percent accurate in its portrayal of the hostage crisis.

“You just don’t chase a 747 down the runway in a car,” he joked, referring to one of the final scenes in the movie.

“What it really did for me,” he said in an interview after the luncheon, “it created a feeling for me of being back into the embassy, back in the streets.

“When I took my wife to see it, she said ‘Did this happen?’ ‘No, that didn’t happen that way.’ And my daughter said, ‘Shh, we’re listening.’ ”

Faith in God and faith in his family sustained him, he said, “and then faith in this country … the men and women who have served, sacrificed and suffered.”

Knowing the stories of other American POWs, from Air Force 1st Lt. Bill Mayall to Adm. James Stockdale — the highest-ranking naval officer held as a POW — and the hardships they endured, “you realize that you can survive,” Needham said in an interview. “You know that other people have survived things that are probably worse than what you are putting up with right now, so that helps with that resilience and steeling yourself for the next day.”

It’s a message that Col. Joseph McFall, 435th AGOW commander, hopes resonates with the airmen who heard Needham’s story.

“For everyone to see that he went through all the stuff that he talked about, and then you see him extremely successful, great attitude, great family,” he said. “It just reinforces what the code of conduct says, keep the faith and life moves on.”

svan.jennifer@stripes.com
 

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