Recalling The Takeover: A Marine Captive In Tehran

StoryCorps' National Day of Listening encourages people to take advantage of the days following Thanksgiving to talk to a family member or friend and have a conversation. This year, host Scott Simon speaks with Marine Corps veteran Kevin Hermening about his time as a captive in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, during the Iran hostage crisis of 1980-81.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The National Day of Listening invites stories from veterans this year. The unofficial holiday started by StoryCorps in 2008 encourages people across the country to take advantage of the days following Thanksgiving to talk to a family member or friend and have a conversation. This National Day of Listening, I get to talk to Kevin Hermening. I was a young reporter in January 1981 sitting with an anxious, tearful family in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in the middle of the night, when they first grainy video images of the 66 U.S. hostages in Tehran who'd just been freed after 444 days. One of them was their son, Kevin Hermening. He was just 21 years old - the youngest Marine guard at the U.S. embassy when it was overrun. His mother, Barbara Timm, put out her hand to touch her son's face on the TV screen. Kevin Hermening now runs a financial services company in Central Wisconsin. Kevin, thanks for being with us.

KEVIN HERMENING: Hello, Scott.

SIMON: Let me be this blunt: how frightening was it?

HERMENING: You know, the early hours of the takeover, there was a lot of adrenaline that we all had, all of us young Marines, and despite the adrenaline rush, we were frightened - there's no question about it - and surrendering the embassy to the Iranian government with the expectation that they would do their job under international law and set us free. Of course, they did anything but that. But, Scott, those early days of blindfolds and beatings and handcuffs and interrogations were anything but easy.

SIMON: Forgive me - did you ever think you were going to die?

HERMENING: Yeah. I did feel that we would be executed a couple of times. There was the mock execution in February of 1980, about three and a half months after we were captured. And that was without a doubt the most frightening experience that I have ever lived through and grateful that it ended without a shot being fired. And it was just another example of the intense desire by the Iranians to definitely let us know who was in charge.

SIMON: Of course, at one point, your mother, Barbara Timm - who I don't mind saying, is just a great lady - she came to Tehran and got to see you for a few minutes. She wanted to get you out of there. And went all the way across to the other side of the world to help her son, or try to, and reportedly the Ayatollah Khomeini was going to let you leave Iran with her. What happened?

HERMENING: They came into my room one day and said we have a surprise for you. I was actually fearful of what the surprise might be. They put me in a room with dozens of TV cameras, and suddenly in the door walked my mom. And I was as shocked as you could imagine I might be. I asked her what she was doing there and she said she had to see me. And I had just come out of 43 days of solitary confinement and there she was in this room with me. And we spent about 18 to 20 minutes together talking basically about things from home - nothing about politics, nothing about negotiations that might be taking place. I immediately began to fear for her life, and I just couldn't imagine what she was doing there and how she got in. And, you know, it's something that, unless you're a parent - and I wasn't at the time; I am now - it's very difficult to understand what would compel somebody to do that, and yet she had to do what her heart told her to do. And I'm proud of her for the sacrifice that she paid in public opinion and in emotional toil and then having to get on the plane and come back to the States knowing that I was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Kevin Hermening, who now runs a financial planning services company in Central Wisconsin. A generation ago, he was one of the 66 U.S. hostages held in Tehran. And if you'd like to record a conversation with a loved one, you can go to NationalDayofListening.org - all one word - and download your story for others too. Thanks so much, Kevin.

HERMENING: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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