February 02, 1981 12:00 PM

And finally it was over. Four hundred and forty-four days of captivity for 52 Americans, 444 agonizing days of waiting and dread for their families, 444 days of outrage for their countrymen and humiliation for their country. Tormented by the outlaw arrogance of the Iranian regime, many of the loved ones of the captives could not believe the ordeal was over even when a beaming Elizabeth Ann Swift and a tearful Kathryn Koob led the hostages off the Boeing 727 in Algiers and into the world’s first live, uncensored sight of them. Most Americans’ sense of history was stunned by the epic confluence of the day’s events: the majesty and high promise of Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration; the emotional farewell of Jimmy Carter, whose tense last days and sleepless nights in office had been devoted to bringing the Americans home.

What led up to the hostages’ homecoming was a virtuoso performance of public servants at the highest level working against time and probability in strict diplomatic secrecy. What leads from their success is a very personal and emotional passage for each of the hostages and their family members. Yet it is one they undertake in full view of the American public, who shared some measure of their pain over the last 14½ months and to whom the hostages have become symbols of freedom and heroic survival.

For Edmund Muskie, 66, the fight for their freedom was the ultimate challenge and perhaps crowning victory of 32 years in politics, and it gave his final days as Secretary of State—recorded by his 31-year-old photographer son, Steve, on these pages—the character of high drama. Six days before the resolution of the crisis, Muskie was happily bowing out of office, hinting in a sentimental address to the Maine legislature, where he began his public career, that he might end it there as well. But then the next day, just as his military jet touched down at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, a call came through from the President alerting him to a possible breakthrough in the hostage negotiations. From then until high noon of Inauguration Day, Muskie’s life was at the mercy of the mood swings of the talks in Algeria (conducted by his deputy, Warren Christopher).

At the Carter administration’s last National Security Council meeting at 8:30 Friday morning, the President’s men were tight-lipped, the prognosis grim. But back in his office 40 minutes later, Muskie saw cause for hope in a flurry of cable traffic from Algeria. When he left work at 11:15 that night an agreement seemed near. Yet it was 36 tense hours later, on Sunday morning—after a nearly sleepless night of urgent telephone calls—when his aide David Newsom finally came into his office to announce, “It seems we are at the threshold of an agreement,” and Muskie allowed himself a hopeful smile. The President called to say he’d been in church praying for a deal. “It looks like your prayers might be answered,” Muskie replied. He hung up and cracked to his son, “I haven’t had time to go to church this morning. I think the good Lord will understand.”

When Christopher called to confirm that the deal was cut, Muskie went to the families’ liaison room and exclaimed to two of the hostage wives on duty: “Oh, what a wonderful day!” But then came the hitch, and an ominous (or possibly helpful) note from President-elect Reagan warning that if the Tuesday noon deadline were missed, “there will be a dramatic change in our attitude.”

By the time the hostages’ plane took off from Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport—33 minutes past the deadline—Muskie’s reserve of Yankee taciturnity had been tested to the breaking point. “It will be a bad memory,” he told hostage wife Penne Laingen, “but a happy reunion.”

With that, the diplomatic struggle for their release from captivity was ended and their interior journey to freedom began. To Consul General Richard Morefield’s wife, Dorothea, the real mark of the hostages’ return was “not the hoopla, it’s not the President there at the airport saying, ‘I’m glad you’re home.’ The homecoming is when everyone’s gone and we resume as a family.”

For many families that transition will prove difficult. “When he comes here we’ll have to play it by ear day by day,” said Marine Sgt. Rodney Sickmann’s father, Virgil, when word of the hostages’ freedom reached his Krakow, Mo. home. “We keep hoping he is what he was when he left.” But none of them could possibly be the same as they were 14½ months ago, nor could their families. Psychiatrists who have studied the “reentry” of POWs and other longterm captives say that only at home will the former hostages begin to feel the rage that they concealed from their captors, and that some will suffer depression and withdrawal within a few weeks of their euphoric homecoming as a result of their prolonged experience of powerlessness and dependency. Their instant celebrity could be another problem. “Tickertape parades may seem peculiar to them because they do not see themselves as heroes,” says Dr. Herbert Modlin of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, who also predicts “upset stomachs, ulcers, hypertension, headaches—all symptoms that appear under chronic stress to which there is no solution.” He expects many to need long-term counseling to ease their adjustment.

Their families will have changed no less than they; some will have suffered more acutely than their absent members. “The families have lived in a constant state of turmoil and tension,” says Dr. Charles Figley, director of Purdue’s Family Research Institute and co-author of a 600-page study of anticipated problems for the hostage families. “In contrast, the hostages’ experiences were constant. They were able to accommodate themselves to the constancy.” Embassy aide Gary Lee’s wife, Pat, suffered from stomach and muscle aches and periods of insomnia and ground her teeth while her husband was gone. Other hostage wives developed ulcers, high blood pressure and rapid weight loss. They also found new resources in themselves—Pat Lee, for example, began driving again after seven years. Others developed new pride in a self-sufficiency that could offend some of the returning husbands’ old sense of feeling needed. Some children of the hostages, particularly the younger ones, will no doubt betray shyness at first with their long-absent parent—or jealousy—in ways that could be painful. When Dana Lee, 12, heard last week that her father was coming home, she left the house without much excitement. “I don’t think she really understands or believes it yet,” says Pat.

The reunions themselves can of course be therapeutic. Pat Lee’s pains have vanished already, and Col. Thomas Schaefer’s wife, Anita, is not worried: “He’ll be fine as soon as he sees me.” She may be right. “You have to consider the possible positive effects of the hostages’ experience,” says Dr. Carolyn MacKenzie, a Washington clinical psychologist who has worked with many Foreign Service families. “A hostage may find that having lost so much heightens the value of what he has now: his freedom, his friendships, his family. Celebrity could cause problems for some, but others may realize in a new way their own value.” Purdue’s Dr. Figley agrees: “Whenever they feel like hating their captors, they’re going to get a knock on the door for an interview. Every time they think about strangling a captor, there will be a letter from someone saying, ‘You were in my thoughts every day while you were away.’ In other words, when they feel the love and kindness from the American people, that hatred will melt away.”

The dark and the sanguine views of how the returned hostages will fare are probably both right; some will emerge from the experience strengthened, others permanently scarred. The key, experts say, is how strong they and their relationships were at the time of their capture—and how flexible they and their loved ones can be in the process of adjustment that faces them now. “The person getting off that plane won’t be the same person who got on a plane 14 months ago,” Richard Morefield’s 22-year-old daughter, Betsy, said as she pondered her father’s imminent return last week. “The people waiting to greet them aren’t the same people who put them on the plane. We’ve got to be aware of that. We may be ending one part of this ordeal. But we’re beginning another.”

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