116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Nearly 35 years had passed — so long since the homecoming for the 52 Americans taken hostage by Iranian militants that the group had dwindled to 39 — when what felt like a measure of justice was finally delivered.
It was late 2015, and a law signed by President Barack Obama promised restitution to the former hostages whose 444-day ordeal began with the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
But the full promised payments of up to $4.44 million — $10,000 for each day of captivity — never came. Hostages or their families have received only a small portion from a special fund that administrators now say is out of money. There will be no payments for 2022.
It's now more than 40 years since their release. The group of surviving hostages — including a woman from Waterloo — is down to 35, and the losses are coming faster now. Two died this month, including former Army medic Donald Hohman last week.
"We are not getting any younger," said David M. Roeder, 82, who is among those imploring President Joe Biden to step in.
The retired Air Force colonel, who was a military attache at the embassy, was the lead plaintiff in years of unsuccessful litigation against Iran. The hostages sought to get around the terms of their 1981 release, a deal brokered by Algeria that freed the hostages on President Ronald Reagan's first day in office but barred legal claims.
The State Department fought the former hostages in court, on the grounds that the United States sticks by the terms of diplomatic deals even when it might wish otherwise. Court after court ruled against the erstwhile captives.
"They went through hell," said Dorothea Morefield, whose husband, Richard H. Morefield, had been the consul general when the embassy was seized. He died in 2010 at age 81.
"What he suffered was a disgrace," said Morefield, who lives in Cary, N.C. "He lost peripheral vision in one eye from being thrown against a wall. He never went a full night (of sleep) again. We lived with the aftereffects forever."
Her husband always believed Iran should be held accountable, she added.
The Iran hostage crisis was a national trauma for the United States. On Nov. 4, 1979 — just months after militants loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized control of the country — Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy and took its staff hostage. U.S. leaders were helpless, and Americans were shocked by images of the blindfolded hostages paraded before hostile crowds.
After years of fruitless legal battles against Iran, the 2015 law was enacted as a solution. It set up a special fund for victims of "state sponsors of terrorism," a term currently limited to Iran, North Korea, Syria and Cuba. The fund collects money from sanctions, asset seizures and other actions against those countries and apportions it to victims approved by the Justice Department.
But the law was amended in 2019 under pressure from relatives and survivors of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, who had won a federal court judgment against Iran after asserting that Tehran had aided the attackers. The result was a depleted pool of money, as the embassy hostages suddenly had to share with thousands of new claimants.
"That statute passed by Congress is the best example I know of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished," said attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who administered the fund as an outside special master until 2020.
"I was left in the position of saying: 'To all of you hostages and hostage families, I wish I could help you. Insofar as you take the position that your money should be accelerated and paid in full, I immediately say you make a very convincing case. (But) that's not the statute,'" Feinberg said.
The awkward result has essentially pitted one group of terrorism victims against another. The Iran hostages say they bear no ill will toward the much larger pool of Sept. 11 victims, but question why that group — which has received separate compensation and can sue for more — received access to a fund established to help those for whom the courts are not an option.
Thomas Lankford, a lawyer for the embassy hostages and their families, said that after the Sept. 11 victims were added to the fund, his group argued to be paid first since they'd been waiting 20 years longer. When that didn't work, the group began pushing for new legislation placing them at the head of the line or a directive that the current law be interpreted that way.
Those arguments came to naught during the Trump administration, Lankford said. So far, the group has not heard anything encouraging from the Biden administration, either.
The Justice Department takes the same position outlined by Feinberg: The law is clear that the Sept. 11 victims share equally in the fund with Iran hostages and other victims of attacks attributed to countries on the state terror list. Department officials also dispute the idea that President Joe Biden or Attorney General Merrick Garland could help them with the stroke of a pen.
The former hostages now plan a renewed campaign to put their case to Biden, who was vice president when the law was enacted establishing the fund.
But for now, the remaining men and women at the heart of a tragedy that gripped the nation four decades ago are left hoping something will change before they die or become too ill to reap the benefit.
Kathryn Koob, 83, was one of two women held prisoner in Iran. She had arrived months earlier to head a program aimed at fostering educational and community ties between the two countries. They were sequestered from male hostages and, Koob said, treated better.
"I always felt we were going to get out," she said. "I guess that's Iowa pragmatism and my active faith in the Lutheran Church."
Koob, who lives in Waterloo, said she has not followed the ins-and-outs of the legal and lobbying effort. But she wants a quick resolution so she can use the money to establish an endowed chair in world religion at her alma mater, Wartburg College in Waverly.
"That's something I very much want to do while I can," Koob said.