Chaplain George came to the office of the hospital chaplaincy. He poked his head through the door and stated his request: “I need an unmarked car to help me bring one of the hostage’s mothers to the hospital.”
I immediately volunteered my V.W. van. It was lunch time. Neither of us had eaten. We got in the van and headed out of Wiesbaden to the Army housing of Mainz Gunzenheim.
Chaplain George had worked with some of the Iranian hostage returnee families during their 444 day ordeal. he had bolstered them spiritually and had counseled them to have hope and faith. He was a Lutheran minister and a chaplain, colonel in the United States Marines.
We had to stop and ask directions a number of times. Being from the Kaiserslautern area and, specifically, from Ramstein Air Base, I was unfamiliar with the territory. What should have taken us no more than a half an hour wound up being a hour’s drive. But the trip gave me an opportunity to talk with Chaplain George about the hostages and our roles as chaplains on the ward. The time went very quickly, and our conversation probably was the primary reason that the journey took so long. We were so engrossed in analyzing what was taking place on the ward that we did not pay close attention to where we were going. I also especially wanted somehow to convey to my co-traveler that the returnees’ psychological conditions were delicate and that he and the USAFE Command Chaplain needed to tone down their directing and ordering these souls what they should be doing. I compared their status to that our rape victims whose recovery depended largely on their being able to make their own decisions in order to reestablish their senses of self and of confidence in themselves and their abilities to operate in the world once again as free people.
When we came to the housing area, we had a great deal of difficulty locating the building. as I learned, the Army tends to number its buildings as they construct them. The one we were looking for was in a corner of the housing area, set off from buildings with similar numbers. We finally found it. I dropped Chaplain George off because I could not park close to the stair well. As late as we were, it was better for him to walk the short distance to the front door. I had to drive all the way around the block to get to the driveway of this apartment complex. It was about a half mile drive.
When I parked the van, I went into the stairwell. The apartment, A-6, was three flights up the stairs. I remember thinking that I hoped that I had heard my colleague correctly and that I had the right apartment number. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the name of the woman we were to transport back to the Wiesbaden United States Air Force hospital.
The door opened and I entered the apartment. I thought I had come to the wrong place. There seemed to be no furniture in the place. Camera equipment was strewn everywhere. At first glance, I thought I had entered an armory. The gray-silver film and camera casings looked like ammunition containers. Several people were seated in the living room on hardback chairs.
I asked if, indeed, I had come to the right apartment. I was told that I had. I was quickly introduced, but I immediately asked where the bathroom was. I stepped into the WC and closed the door. I was thinking to myself that I hadn’t expected this trip to be a media event. Evidently, I had stepped into a nest of TV coverage people who had accompanied the hostage’s mother and were tracking and recording her every move. In no way was I comfortable with this situation. As both Chaplain George and I were officers in the United States military, neither of us was authorized or cleared to speak for the respective branches of service to which we belonged. Furthermore, we could not speak either for the hospital or for the State Department which had come to honcho the 52 hostages’ reentry into the free world. So, as I stepped out of the bathroom, I felt antsy about my position and anxious to carry out my role of helping this hostage mother get to her son. I decided that I would have as little to do with the T.V. people as I could. But, in my determination, I was very nervous and jittery.
I came out into the foyer to find that Chaplain George and his charge had already started down the stairs. I realized that there was nothing else to do but quickly start down the stairs myself in pursuit. I had left the sliding door to the van open, so I knew that my passengers would have no difficulty in boarding. But, as I was making my exit from the apartment, a woman caught me. She introduced herself. I recognized her name from having watched national news back in the States. She was a top level Washington correspondent. I instantly grew more defensive not wanting to encourage any dialogue with her. What did she want with me, anyway? Having avoided the media people successfully for the first three days of my five at Wiesbaden, I had resolved that my mission was an example of this resolution. I wasn’t seeking any limelight…and now, here I was being confronted by the very aspect of this assignment I had least wanted to engage with.
“Rabbi,” she started formally with a note of officiousness in her voice, “we’d like to know what kind of vehicle you’re driving.”
What a silly question, I thought. “All you have to do is to look outside when we get downstairs,” I replied trying to get away as quickly as possible.
“No, Rabbi, we really would like to know,” she demanded again.
“Why?” I asked
“We have a camera crew at the gate of the hospital waiting to film your arrival. Tell me, now, what kind of car are you driving?”
I turned around with a belligerent smile and looked her right in the eye. “Look, Liz,” I said, “beware of rabbis in Germany who drive Volks Wagon vans!”
Liz smiled back at me and continued her interrogation…this time with a touch of subterfuge. “Look, Rabbi, we’re in on this thing. You can talk to us. Now, which entrance did you say you were going to be using when you get back to the hospital?”
“I didn’t say,” I rejoined. “I really don’t know. I’m not from this area and I really have no idea which entrance I’ll use.” As I answered this time, I had reached the second floor. It struck me that I was being questioned just to stall me so that the camera crew could get more footage of the hostage’s mother as she and Chaplain George were stepping into the van.
“Rabbi!” Liz continued, “We really need to know!”
Suddenly, I swung around on the stairs. I faced Liz Trotta coming down behind me. I looked up at her setting my jaw. “Liz,” I said angrily, my lower lip beginning to quiver, “I am a rabbi in the United States Air Force and I am going to do my job!”
I turned and went down the rest of the way, and climbed into the driver’s seat of the van. I knew I was being filmed and I tried to control and neutralize my facial expression, but I was raging. As I began to back out of the parking space, I saw in my rear view mirror that a camera man was recording us from the rear of the van. I felt ambivalent about his safety as I backed around. I he should get in the way, I might hit him. All I can say now is thank God he didn’t remain where he was.
I pulled out into the main street and turned in the opposite direction from which we had come. I had not the slightest idea where we were headed. As Chaplain George talked to our passenger, I threaded my way into downtown Mainz Gunzenheim. I decided to follow the autobahn signs which read “Frankfurt.” I was sure that we weren’t being followed. If the signs say “Frankfurt,” I reasoned, then they must also go the opposite direction to Wiesbaden. The last thing I wanted to tell this excited woman in the back seat was that I hadn’t any idea of how we were going to get back to the hospital. And the thought crept into my head that the worst confrontation with the press might yet to be coming…at the hospital gate. Then and there, as we rolled through the town’s central circle, I decided that even if I had to run the photographers down, I was going to enter via the front gate and go directly for the main entrance of the hospital.
It took another hour or so to get back to Wiesbaden. As we entered the city, I missed the one turn off from the autobahn that would have taken us by familiar roads to the hospital. I wandered around, sometimes listening in on the conversation that was going on behind me, sometimes losing the talk in the whine of the engine.
Amazingly enough, I suddenly realized that I knew where I was. We were now not far from the road I wanted that led to the front gate of the medical facility. As we came up the thoroughfare, I asked Chaplain George to switch places with our guest, putting himself next to the window and her next to the aisle way. They changed quickly, sensing the reason. I now began explaining to her that she might be delayed in seeing her son. All of the former hostages were undergoing extensive medical examinations and debriefings. I didn’t want her to be so excited that a wait might cause her anymore undue anxiety. She said that she understood. After all, it had been fourteen months since she had last had contact with him. Another few minutes or hours wouldn’t make that much of a difference. She really seemed to mean it.
As we rounded the corner that would bring us to the road on which the hospital was located, my heart began to pump faster. I reached in my coat for my official State Department ward pass. I wanted it ready and in hand. There had been times when as many as what seemed a hundred of the press corps had clogged the area around the hospital’s main gate. I didn’t want them to spot us and then converge on the van.
My colleague began to suggest that I stop before the gate and let them out. They could walk along the side of the hospital and “sneak in” that way. Having already made up my mind about how we were going to smash through, I ignored the suggestion. Besides, I thought to myself, with the camera crew having advanced word and with the number of media people I saw swarming around the gate, somebody would spot the van and put two and two together. On foot, they’d never get to the hospital’s entrance without being deluged.
Before us, in the curb lane, sat two old Air Force buses. “Blue Birds,” we jokingly called them. They are positioned just right, I thought. I pulled slowly up behind them, checking my rear view mirror for traffic in the inner lane. Seeing none there, I felt a sense of relief. My plan was going to work.
I used the Blue Birds to block the view of my approach to the gaggle of people gathered at the gate. Just as I began to pull around them, I shouted forcefully, deliberately and determinedly, “Chaplain! Press your I.D. pass up against the window!”
I gunned the van and pulled around the buses and instantly shot into the hospital drive way and up to gate guard who was standing on the left side of the road way. He spotted the passes and waved us through without hesitation. I mouthed a firm, “Thank you” to him and proceeded to turn into the front circle, traveling the wrong way on this One Way entrance way. It didn’t matter. The way was clear. The three of us were now laughing and joking. “You did it with style, Rabbi.” “Yea,” I quipped, “they didn’t even know we had arrived!”
When we got out of the van, I gave my relieved passenger a warm hug and wished her well. As she and Chaplain George went through the front door and up the stairs, I got back into the van to go and park it. I never saw the woman again.
I do not know to this date if any of the footage from this experience was broadcast back in the States. I haven’t heard any mention of it; so, I assume that this vignette went un-telecasted.
And well that it should not have been, in my opinion. Recognizing that the news media people have jobs to do, and recognizing that they had played an enormous role in keeping the hostages’ ordeal and fate continuously before the American people, I wonder that this particular episode wasn’t a breach of good sense and an intrusion on a family which had suffered enough. Realizing that this hostage mother had had her way paid by the media in exchange for the story, I can’t but raise the question, given the State Department’s discouragement of these ventures, of the propriety both for the woman herself and for all the waiting families and friends who had sweated out the weeks and months of doubt and fear.
Perhaps, in all of this, I over-reacted. Certainly, as I think back over this odyssey, I know that I was demonstrating some of the emotional strain that I, as a deeply involved, military rabbi thrust into the eye of a media storm , was feeling as I went about trying to minister to the needs of my fellow, returning Americans. Theirs was a struggle too long endured. Theirs was an ordeal of victimization and torture. Theirs was a message of unity and gratitude to their homeland which never lost faith in the hope of their safe return.
Now they are home and safe. Hopefully, their message will not be forgotten. Hopefully, what they brought to each American will not be set aside now that the media has long since forgotten about them. And, hopefully, we who worked so hard at the Wiesbaden hospital to help them reenter their lives of free will and decision making will not be disappointed in our efforts. We each struggled with ourselves to keep our focus at a time of great stress and distraction. We each learned about ourselves anew; for, we were under tremendous strain, with enormous commitment to duty and with humble pride in our beloved countrymen and women.
It was an experience we shall never forget.