Washington — The survivors of the Iran hostage crisis hope to begin collecting compensation later this year for their time and suffering in captivity, 3½ decades after they were released.
"I am completely flabbergasted," said Dave Roeder, a Wisconsin native and an Air Force attaché when he was taken prisoner at the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979. "Persistence pays off in the long run."
After trying for years in court and in Congress to win compensation, the former hostages achieved a landmark victory last month. Tucked into a massive year-end spending bill was a measure providing individual payments of up to $4.4 million for the 53 hostages and their estates.
The money is to come not from taxpayers but from a multibillion-dollar penalty paid by the Paris-based bank BNP Paribas for violating international sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan.
Longtime efforts to win compensation directly from Iran failed over the years, largely because the 1981 Algiers Accord that provided for the release of the hostages explicitly barred them from suing Iran.
"Many people scratch their heads and go, 'Why has it taken so long to bring some justice to the hostages?'" said House Republican Sean Duffy of Wausau, who participated in a conference call with reporters Wednesday along with other lawmakers, several former hostages and their lead attorney.
The call came on the 35th anniversary of the release of the hostages.
"It took a lot of political maneuvering," Duffy said of the bipartisan legislation.
Duffy was one of the leaders on the House side in pushing the bill. GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia has long been the key advocate in Congress for compensating the former hostages. He spent seven years on the issue, ultimately corralling support from lawmakers in both parties and the administration.
"Today is a day many thought would never happen," Isakson said.
The legislation sets a maximum payment of $4.4 million, based on a formula of $10,000 per day of captivity, but it doesn't guarantee that survivors will receive the full amount over time. That depends on the funds available and other claimants. The measure does not limit compensation from what is now a roughly $1 billion fund to the former Iran hostages; other victims of state-sponsored terrorism may seek compensation. A special master will be appointed to oversee the payments.
The Iran hostages included Wisconsin natives Roeder, who grew up in Whitefish Bay and now lives in North Carolina; and Kevin Hermening, a Marine veteran, the youngest hostage and a constituent of Duffy's who lives in Wausau. A third Wisconsin hostage was Tom Ahern, a CIA station chief at the embassy, according to a 2011 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story.
Hermening thanked lawmakers for clinging to their cause over the years and singled out for recognition the eight military personnel who died in Desert One, the failed 1980 rescue effort, saying many of those due to receive compensation are committed to contributing to a fund for their families.
The former hostages on the call noted the urgency of the compensation issue as many in their group have died, gotten older and experienced health and personal problems.
"This... really makes a big difference. We have been remembered and I think that brings closure... to this awful moment in our lives," said one former hostage, Mike Kennedy.
But Roeder said he didn't think there would ever be complete closure for many of the people affected.
"Many... have suffered and are in pretty bad shape... this doesn't end it. We're going to continue to have problems. We can't put together broken marriages. We can't fix the relationships between parents and estranged children, and on the physical side of course, the scars, like the ones I had on my forearms from rubber hoses and all that sort of thing, are not going to suddenly disappear," he said.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," Roeder said.
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