For Rocky Sickmann of St. Louis, the U.S. war on terrorism began nearly 30 years ago -- on the morning he was taken hostage by Iranian militants and survived, along with 51 other American captives, 444 days of torment.
"If you talk to a lot of the hostages, you know the war on terrorism started on Nov. 4, 1979, when we did not retaliate on Iran. And it seems like Iran has humiliated us and taken us for granted ever since,'' Sickmann says.
For St. Louisans of a certain age, the name Rocky Sickmann will always bring to mind the image of a 21-year-old Marine guard from Krakow, Mo., who was just 15 days into his tour of duty when a mob supporting the Ayatollah Khomeini overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran. After 14 months of diplomacy by President Jimmy Carter, the 52 hostages were released on Jan. 21, 1981, the day President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
Three decades later, Sickmann says he still cannot grasp the depth of the media coverage surrounding his ordeal. After returning home, he went to work for Anheuser-Busch and is now the company's director of U.S. military sales. He is married to Jill Ditch, the girlfriend who waited with his family throughout his captivity. They have three children.
We caught up with Sickmann to discuss his efforts to help Rams quarterback Marc Bulger raise more than $250,000 to renovate the USO at Lambert airport. (Click here to see story.)
Sickmann also shared his thoughts on Iran, which he says needs to be held accountable for supporting terrorism and aiding insurgents in Iraq. He also wonders what might have happened had the United States followed a different course of action in 1979.
On Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
"When you look at his bio, it puts him as a radical Islamic Revolutionary Guard leader in 1979. Well, if he was a Revolutionary Guard leader in 1979, and we were taken on Nov. 4, he wasn't home arranging his sock drawer. He was in the midst of the whole thing, and now he's the president of Iran.''
On the "what ifs" that haunt Sickmann
"Being a good Marine – and every good Marine listens to his orders. That's what they teach you -- the Marine Corps teaches you discipline and pride. Our orders that morning were, 'Don't fire. Don't retaliate against them.' We were waiting for the host government, and, obviously, the host government never came.
"You just wonder what would have happened on that morning of Nov. 4, 1979, had we fired upon those Iranian women they had put up to the front as they broke through the basement window of the embassy. They had brought women in black chadors up front as shields knowing that the Marines weren't going to shoot innocent, unarmed women.
"A long story short, I wonder had I fired that morning on all those women – obviously, I would not be here this day talking to you – but that maybe would have started the war on terrorism on Nov. 4, 1979, and eliminated everything that's happened since that point.
"My wife – she's my best psychiatrist – she says, 'You can't let that sit on your shoulders' – but, believe me, every time I work to support [today's] servicemen and women, I think back. And maybe this would not be happening had I possibly done something different.''
On the decision to negotiate the hostages' release
"President Carter, God love him, felt the way of dealing with Iran was negotiating, and I just believe that Iran is a much better negotiator than we are. They know how to play chess. Every time we negotiate, who really gets anything out of the negotiations other than Iran?''
On his place in the history books
"I will never know the amount of publicity that was occurring when I was over there. I'll ask my wife Jill – we've been married 27 wonderful years – was it like that? She says, 'Oh, my gosh, it was much worse. There were pictures in the newspaper. Every night, your picture was on television.' You can't imagine that.
"Obviously, every place you go in St. Louis when you say the name ... I was having my yearly checkup and the nurse was taking blood out of my arm, and another nurse comes by and says, 'Hi, Rocky, how are you doing?' And all of a sudden the other nurse says, 'Oh, my gosh, now I know who you are.' That just happened about a week ago. My name had slipped back in her mind, but it came back – 'Oh, you're the hostage guy.' So, I guess I'll always be the 'hostage guy.'
"I'm still asked to speak at different functions, but I don't have the time, although I try to do that for schools because it's obviously in the history books. Imagine that something you and 51 other people did would be in a history book. So, you try and expound on what happened – and it is very strange.''
On his job
"It's a wonderful thing for me to be in this position, as director of military sales for Anheuser-Busch -- to be able to salute the men and women who are currently serving and to be able to help on this [USO] project with Marc [Bulger] and [radio personality] Dave Glover.
"Who would have ever thought – after those 444 days -- that I would be the director of military sales for Anheuser-Busch?
"The first beer that I had when I got back to St. Louis and I was heading home was a Busch beer. I get off the airplane -– a kid from the Midwest -– I had never done a press conference, and I'm thrown into this room at the Marriott, and the whole room was full of people from every newspaper, every radio and television station. And, wow, it's overwhelming. Then I go out to the bus that's taking me home, along with my family, and there was a cooler. It was probably donated by Anheuser-Busch, and here I am, drinking a Busch beer and going home.
"But God leads us in mysterious ways, and I'm now supporting [today's] servicemen and women because I can remember how lonely it was, how difficult it was. My parents and family were at home wondering what was happening to me -- and all these families have the same thoughts. I can definitely relate."