During the past year the U.S. hostages in Iran and their families at home have endured an agonizing waiting game. Rumors of impending release raised both hopes and anxieties, while continued Iraqi attacks on Iran heightened fears. No one has felt the strain more than wives like Pat Simmons Lee, 37, whose husband, Gary, is a 10-year veteran of the Foreign Service and was the embassy’s senior general services officer at the time of the takeover last November 4. Contact with Gary has been minimal—a dozen censored cards and letters, one 10-minute phone call to her Fairfax County, Va. home and brief views of him on TV, once during Easter services filmed by his captors. Since the aborted rescue attempt by U.S. commandos last April, his whereabouts in Iran have been unknown. While trying to maintain her poise in public and the spirits of her daughter, Dana, 11, Patsy has lived with fears and frustrations that threatened her very health. In a frank conversation with PEOPLE Correspondent Clare Crawford-Mason, she discusses the longest 12 months other life.
Probably the very worst time I had was the day of the takeover. A friend called to tell me, but I thought, “It’s probably just another demonstration. It’ll pass in a couple of hours, a day at the most.” But it didn’t. I was just scared. The embassy staff knew something was going to happen four days before the takeover, but nobody listened to them in Washington. That’s what makes me mad.
The first week and a half I was in a daze. I felt like a robot. My mother and my brother and his family came down, but I felt very crowded and didn’t want them around me. I prepared a roast, the normal Sunday meal, but I couldn’t eat. Everything that went down came right back. It was very unlike me, but it lasted that whole first week and a half.
In the beginning I would run from the radio to the television every hour on the hour. I had them both going at the same time. If the telephone wasn’t ringing, I’d be calling the State Department. They could have done more. But they’re better now. Now they send us a briefing every week. Part of the stress before was due to my imagination. I’d think of all these things that might be happening to Gary. Was he getting beaten on the feet? Were they slapping his face?
Since then I’ve lost a good 10 or 12 pounds. I get indigestion from the stress, and I get tension headaches every once in a while. I used to need eight or 10 hours’ sleep, but now sometimes I’ll sleep two hours and be wide awake. I smoke more too, and that has a tendency to make me restless. At least that’s what the doctor tells me. And then I began clenching and grinding my teeth while I was sleeping. My jaw became sore and I had to have fillings replaced.
Two months after the takeover I thought I was getting along very well, and suddenly I just felt very weak and watery in my legs. I got to the point where I was afraid I was going to fall down, and I just couldn’t handle it. I was bowling 98s when I had a 140 average last year. It turned out that my vitamin B count was almost at the danger state, and it took three months of massive vitamin doses before I could venture out on my legs. The doctor said it’s amazing what stress will do to you. Some families are on Valium, but I’m afraid of that kind of thing.
Watching Gary on TV was tough. I was delighted to see him, but afterward I thought, “What have they done to him?” He looked so very seedy, like he hadn’t had a bath in three weeks. Later I sent him three sets of underwear; I couldn’t bear the thought of him not having clean ones. And it was hard seeing him look so different from how I remembered him. Not physically different, but at the Easter service there was so much emotion in his eyes. It really tore me up. I almost wish I hadn’t seen him.
The Monday after Easter I got a telephone call out of the blue at 8 in the morning. It was one of the Iranian students, who then put Gary on the phone. We talked for about 10 minutes. He said his guard would cut us off if I mentioned any current events. I reassured him that our families were all right, and of course he wanted to know what the dog was up to, just trivial things. Hanging up that phone was hard. I just wanted to crawl through that line and say, “Come back, come back here where you belong.” But after I hung up, I yelled as loud as I could—a real rebel yell. That call carried me for about three weeks.
I’m a very firm believer in God, but there were times when I questioned all this. I’d stand right at my kitchen window and shake my fist and say, “Why did you let this happen?” One day I was sitting in the kitchen and all at once I started crying. My daughter, Dana, said to me, “Momma, I don’t know why you get so upset. You know Dad’s gonna be OK.” And I thought, “All right, it’s time to just pick yourself up by the seat of the pants and get on with it. My first responsibility now—priority No. 1—is Dana.”
We’ve kept incredibly busy thanks to an organization called No Greater Love. It was started in Washington, D.C. by Carmella LaSpada about nine years ago to help the children of American POWs and MIAs in Vietnam. We’ve gone to a Washington Bullets basketball game, a lunch with Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and movies. We went to see Bob Hope at the Kennedy Center and spent about 45 minutes with Bob and his wife. I didn’t even have a driver’s license until just before Gary left, and I didn’t have any confidence in my own abilities. Now I’m proud of myself for just getting in the car and going places.
I have a very good friend who’s a psychologist in California, and I rant and rave to him—you should see my phone bills. I’m also in constant touch with wives of other hostages. After the abortive rescue attempt we immediately banded together and said, “What are we gonna do? Are they alive?” We wouldn’t admit this to reporters; in public we kept up the old stoic front. Within ourselves we doubted and said, “Oh Lord, now what?”
But you manage. You get on the phone with your friends and talk yourself out of it. You draw on resources you never thought you had—inner strength, possibly, the support of the people, neighbors, friends, the other wives, my family, Gary’s family. I’ve always been a quiet and shy person. I can’t believe that I’ve done things like meeting with senators and congressmen. Dana’s been a very calming influence; I don’t think she’s ever been down. Kids can shut things out better. She’s been my salvation.
I just couldn’t believe how much the American people have cared—wearing bracelets, tying yellow ribbons around trees, that sort of thing. I have stacks of unanswered mail and a box that’s crammed full of mail that I have answered. It’s really overwhelming. Once in a while something will happen, and I get kicked right in the behind again with the whole thing, and it just comes crumbling down on me again. I’m 37 years old, but some days I feel about 95. I’ve quit blaming God, though, and I feel somewhere there’s got to be a reason for this. I realize that good doesn’t necessarily always overcome evil. In this case it’s a real battle royal. At least now I’m more deeply sympathetic with other people’s problems.