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Marine Maj. Steve Kirtley was one of 52 Americans taken
hostage in Iran in 1979. Todayas the 20-year anniversary of his release approachesKIrtley is stationed at Quantico. Suzanne Carr / The Free LanceStar
Marine looks back 20 years after Iran hostage crisis
By PAMELA GOULD
The Free Lance-Star
IT WAS TWO IN THE MORNING in his fourth month of captivity when Iranian militants jolted 21-year-old Steve Kirtley and
his fellow hostages from sleep.
Using automatic rifles as prods, they hustled the two women and 50 men into the hallway of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran,
forced them spread-eagle against a wall and then hastily applied blindfolds.
We could hear what was going on and we were smart enough to know what was happening, Kirtley vividly recalled more than
two decades later.
Dozens of angry-sounding Iranians clamored around them.
And once they got us lined up, it got kind of quiet ... and one of the Iranians yelled something, some kind of command,
and all of them started fiddling with their rifles like they were putting rounds in their chambers.
And then it got really quietI mean just deathly quietfor about three seconds.
In that moment, Kirtley had but one thought: If you shoot us, shoot me in the head so it doesnt hurt for long.
But then, just as suddenly as their captors had rousted them, the armed men began taking the hostages inside again one
by one, strip-searching them and rifling their belongings.
And then that was it, Kirtley said during a recent interview in his office on Quantico Marine Corps Base. They brought
us back to the rooms and pushed us in there, and we were done.
For Kirtley, who today is a 42-year-old major living in North Stafford, that incident was one of a handful of terrifying
moments amid 15 long months of drudgery.
And this Saturday, as the nation inaugurates its 43rd president and begins looking to its future, Kirtleys sightsif only
for a momentwill be on the Inauguration Day two decades past.
That dayJan. 20, 1981spelled freedom for him and his 51 comrades after 444 days of unending tension.
The taking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, shook Americas confidence in its place on the world stage and
unveiled a new threat to world peacethe specter of terrorism.
But for Steve Kirtley and the other hostages, the impact was far more personal.
It was a period that proved Kirtleys mettle as a Marine and launched a distinguished career that has now spanned 23 years.
But it is one he acknowledges would be significantly more trying today.
I would have a completely different outlook on it now, he said. Im older, married and have three sonsthree young sons.
An inauspicious start
By the time Steve Kirtley entered elementary school, he had lost his mother to suicide, had been abandoned by his father
and spent half his life in an orphanage.
At age 6, his aunt and maternal uncle adopted him, but life continued to confront him with challenges. His three older
male cousins taunted him at home with malicious pranks and school proved to be a chore he spent most days avoiding.
By age 18, Kirtley was a high-school dropout working at a Pizza Hut in his hometown of Little Rock, Ark., and apparently
But that quickly changed when a Vietnam War veteran wandered in one day and began telling him about the Marine Corps and
his wartime service.
Within weeks, Kirtley had enlisted and was on his way to boot camp.
Two years later, when the Corps needed volunteers for its prestigious security-guard program, he seized the opportunity
to see the world and pursue what he viewed as a career-enhancing move.
Its a different caliber of peopleof Marines, Kirtley said. Practically, if you sneeze wrong, theyll dump you from the program.
Kirtley was a lanky 6-foot, 3-inch corporal fresh out of Marine security-guard school at the Quantico base when he arrived
at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Aug. 8, 1979.
Eight months earlier, the Ayatollah Khomeini had risen to power after militant Islamic forces deposed Shah Mohammed Riza
Pahlevi in a civil war.
The U.S.-backed shah, accused of growing rich as he oppressed his people during a 37-year reign, had fled the country.
Although tensions appeared to have cooled some by summer, anti-American sentiment still simmered.
Kirtley knew the atmosphere was still tense in the Middle Eastern country when he volunteered for duty there, but was undaunted.
He figured there might be a skirmish at worst.
I wanted to be where the action was, he recalled. You dont join the Marine Corps for the great benefits. You join the Marine
Corps to be a Marine.
We want you to surrender
Cpl. Kirtleys first weeks on duty at the embassy were relatively calm. The only tension or animosity he experienced came
when the pale-skinned blonde ventured onto city streets in his off hours.
That changed in October when President Jimmy Carter allowed the deposed shah into the United States for cancer treatment.
By Nov. 4, 1979, hundreds of thousands of protesters had been gathering in front of the U.S. Embassy off and on for weeks.
The day before the takeover, Kirtley said as many as 500,000 people thronged the six-lane thoroughfare in front of the
It was just a deafening sound of people chanting, he recalled.
Kirtley had gone off duty at midnight on Nov. 3, 1979, and was in the living quarters across from the embassy with one
of his Marine roommates when the hand-held walkietalkie in his room crackled, indicating an emergency.
He threw on his uniform and they raced to the top of their eight-story building for a glimpse of the trouble.
There were Iranians all over the place, Kirtley said.
Soon, the protesters invaded the living quarters and began kicking down doors. Kirtley radioed back for instructions.
Lock the door and if they kick the door in, we want you to surrender, he was told.
Within 20 minutes, he was walking across to the compound, his hands clasped atop his head, a pistol pointing his way.
Initially, he took it in stride, figuring he and his fellow captives would be treated well enough and released before long.
I cant say I was really, really frightened, Kirtley said. I was just apprehensive.
I had plenty of opportunity later to be frightened.
Three times, Kirtley expected to die.
The first came on his initial day of captivity. He was blindfolded, bound at his wrists and marched in front of one of
the 28-acre compounds brick buildings. He stood there as an angry crowd of Iranians jeered.
Then, after what seemed like an eternity, his captors walked him back indoors without explanation.
That was probably my good excuse for being cooperative, Kirtley said of his attitude thereafter.
The second threat of death was the 2 a.m. mock firing squad in February 1980.
The third came four months after a botched April 1980 rescue attempt by U.S. forces.
The hostages had been dispersed throughout the country and were in the process of being reunited. Kirtley and three other
captives were being driven from the city of Isfahan, about eight hours southwest of Tehran, back to the capital when the van
they were in flipped three times along a desert highway.
Kirtleys first thought was of death. His second was of freedom.
After several minutes of confusion, the captors got the situation under control and the journey continued.
Passing the time
A few weeks into their captivity, the Iranians allowed the hostages access to books seized when an American school in Tehran
closed. But they still could not speak to one anothernot for another two months.
Then they were given games to keep them occupiedplaying cards, poker chips and pieces for chess and checkers.
Fresh air was harder to come by.
On average, the hostages got one hour in a small enclosed space once a month. At one point, they went four months without
That was tough for a long-legged Marine who hated sitting still. He began walking in circles in the room he shared with
three to five men to keep from going stir crazy.
At points, I would get where I was very frantic about wanting to get out, Kirtley recalled. And just having some level
of believing were never going to get out of here.
But he said those were the times the hostages would rally one anothers spirits.
There always seemed to be somebody there to bring you out of the funk, he said.
Sit-ups, push-ups, games and daydreaming helped relieve the stress, but the young man who turned 22 and earned another
stripe while in captivity said the books from the old school are what made the difference.
I read a lot, he said. About the Jews going through the Holocaust and POWs in Vietnam.
And compared to some of that stuff, it wasnt bad for me.
Anger and illumination
When Kirtley came home, he basked in the countrys warm welcomea reception at the White House that included a handshake
from newly-inaugurated President Reagan, a parade in his hometown and a greeting by former Arkansas governor and future President
Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary.
But simultaneously, he was dealing with angerat his captors and at the commander in chief he blamed for his long captivity.
It wasnt until the past year that Kirtley got a clearer understanding of the events transpiring on the home front.
Before watching a cable television program that looked back at the drama of the hostage crisis, Kirtley felt Carter hadnt
done enough to gain the hostages release.
Afterward, he said, I realized we probably all came close a couple of times to being killed.
Over the years, sometimes in preparation for speaking to a group about his experiences, Kirtley spent time reading about
Iran and its history. It has given him insight into the hostility Iranians harbor against the United States.
I heard their pitches from them [during captivity], I read their history and I understand, he said recently.
But that doesnt mean he condones their actions or is swayed by their viewonly that he appreciates their feelings.
Kirtley thinks both nations would benefit from normalized relations and hed like to see it come to pass.
The people over there are just as nice and friendly as anyone else, he said. The same kinds of things make them mad that
He says theres just one obstacle to overcome.
Its just a problem of getting past the governments to the people.
Reminders give perspective
Kirtley neither dwells on his days as a hostage nor is haunted by his memories. But he does keep reminders on the walls
of his fifth-floor office at the James Wesley Marsh Center on the Quantico base.
And it does surface on occasion.
Like when he hears someone talking about a book and he realizes it was one he read during his captivity.
Or when he looks at his sons and realizes that at ages 2, 4 and 9 they cannot appreciate the lessons hed like to share
with themlike how much safer their daily lives are compared to the youngsters he used to watch running the streets of Tehran
Or just how good life is in this countrya country where even people on the poorer end of the economic spectrum often have
televisions and cable.
But Kirtley isnt given to preaching and he isnt into trumpeting his achievements or wallowing in self-pity.
What he is, according to Col. Craig Grotzky, his supervisor on base, is someone who makes the most of a difficult situation.
Hes the type of individual that takes a glass thats half empty and makes it half full, Grotzky said.
To rise from being an orphan and high-school dropout to become a Marine officer with a masters degree in a technical field
defies the odds, Grotzky said, expressing his admiration.
You look at a guy like Kirtley and theres no reason anybody should failor quit, he added.
When Kirtley arrived home from Iran, the Marine Corps gave him three options: immediate honorable discharge despite having
a year left on his enlistment, his pick of military schools or posting to the duty station of his choice.
He chose to stick close to home and spent a year in Marine public affairs in Little Rock before taking a stint as a drill
instructor. After that, he headed off to a government-paid college education, followed by Officer Candidate School.
Since then, he has been billeted around the country and served overseas in the Persian Gulf War.
And it was at Marine Headquarters that he met his wife, Maj. Catherine Payne.
Pictures of family dot his office today, sprinkled amid mementos of a less happy time. Like the framed copy of the Jan.
20, 1981, edition of the armed-forces newspaper Stars and Stripes hanging to the right of his desk.
On its front page is a headline declaring the hostages impending release encircled by photos of all 52 hostagestheir signatures
added en route from Germany to the U.S. aboard an Air Force jet.
Or the photo beneath it taken during the hostages 10-year reunion as part of an article for Life magazine.
Or the Defense Department commendation sitting on his file cabinet that praises his bravery, self-discipline and leadership
while in captivity.
But it is the framed, black-and-white picture Kirtley keeps on the wall to his left that he glances at most often.
In it, he and Sgt. Ladell Maples are being marched onto the embassy grounds as the hostage crisis unfolds.
It is the one Kirtley uses to keep perspectivefor himself and those he supervises as head of the technical-support branch
for information systems for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
When day-to-day problems seem to be mounting, he looks at it and reminds himself: It has been worse.