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THEN & NOW: How This Marine Hostage Honors Those Who Gave Their Lives to Rescue Him

A sergeant held in Iran for 444 days never forgot the 8 killed in 1980 in Operation Eagle Claw

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Rocky Sickmann returns home to a jubilant reception after being released from captivity in Iran in January 1981.
Karen Elshout/Post-Dispatch/POLARIS

He didn’t know it at the time, but on the 174th day of Sgt. Rocky Sickmann’s captivity in Iran, eight American servicemen died trying to free him.

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More than 42 years later, Sickmann devotes his working life to honoring them by helping families of the fallen.

His bond with the eight was forged in tragedy on April 25, 1980, when Sickmann was one of 53 hostages still being held at the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, where he’d been a Marine guard.

Then 22, the Missouri native had been chained to a bed by Islamic radicals loyal to the country’s new leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Fellow captives had been subjected to beatings and mock executions.

Unknown to the hostages, President Jimmy Carter had launched Operation Eagle Claw, a daring rescue mission in which 14 aircraft and more than 300 American personnel infiltrated Iran under cover of darkness and landed at a remote rendezvous site code-named Desert One.

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The plan was for a Delta Force assault team of 120 to be flown onward to the Iranian capital, where they would storm the embassy.

But the mission was ill-fated from the beginning. Two of the eight Sea Stallion helicopters flying from the USS Nimitz in the Gulf of Oman got caught in a dust storm and failed to make it to Desert One.

A third Sea Stallion reported an engine fault at the rendezvous site, and the Marine commander declared it unsafe to fly. Since the next stage of the plan required six helicopters, the mission was aborted.

In the confusion during the evacuation of Desert One, a Sea Stallion collided with an EC-130 refueler, igniting a massive fireball. Three Marines in the Sea Stallion and five Air Force crew members in the Hercules perished in the flames.

When news of the failed rescue attempt broke, the Iranian guards blindfolded and handcuffed the hostages before dispersing them around the country to thwart future rescue attempts.

“Right then I had such a good feeling that we were going to be released,” Sickmann wrote the next day in his diary. But his heart fell when he was told to prepare for a 10-hour car ride.

The charred remains of the eight airmen had been flown to Tehran and paraded before the cameras in the embassy courtyard.

A week later, when a guard told Sickmann about the debacle at Desert One, the young Marine was devastated.

It was only after he and the other remaining 51 hostages were released after 444 days as prisoners — minutes after President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration — that Sickmann learned the names of the eight.

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The five from the U.S. Air Force Hercules were pilot Maj. Hal Lewis, navigator Maj. Richard Bakke, copilot Capt. Lyn McIntosh, navigator Capt. Charles McMillan, and flight engineer Tech. Sgt. Joel Mayo. The three Marines from the Sea Stallion were Staff Sgt. Dewey Johnson, Sgt. John Harvey and Cpl. George Holmes.

“Those eight individuals had the guts to try,” Sickmann told AARP Veteran Report. “For me, I come home, and I’ve got this wonderful family. Four grandkids. I’ve been able to go fishing with my son. I went to father-daughter dances. I walked my daughters down the aisle. I held my grandkids. Those eight, they lost all of that.”

Today, Sickmann, 65, who joined Anheuser-Busch after the Marines and stayed with the company for 34 years, honors those warriors through his work with Folds of Honor, a charity that provides scholarships to the children of service members and first responders.

Many of the children of those killed at Desert One benefited from scholarships that helped them complete their education. Maj. Lewis’ son Jim, a neurosurgeon, and Capt. McIntosh’s son Scott, a teacher, both credit their success to charitable help.

Sickmann travels extensively to raise funds for Folds of Honor, which donates more than $20 million in scholarships each year. “We, as American people, must remember that freedom isn’t free,” he said. “These individuals have families, and we must make sure we take care of them.”

He finds his work therapeutic. “There are things that don’t go away,” he said. “You don’t forget it.

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