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When Iranians took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, they held 52 Americans hostage for over 444 days.in 1981, the hostage crisis ended, but that wasn’t the end of the story – or the suffering – for the hostages and their families.
The hostage crisis began when Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy, furious that the U.S. had given the deposed shah of Iran medical sanctuary. In those frantic moments before the embassy fell, consul general Richard Morefield helped five Americans escape. They ended up in the. Their escape from Iran was portrayed in 2012’s « Argo. »
Morefield was then among those captured after he led half a dozen more Americans onto nearby streets, but their escape was cut off by an angry mob.
Back home in San Diego, his wife Dotty Morefield spent her days keeping the pressure on for the release of the hostages. She told CBS News at the time that she was just taking it « one day at a time, » even when visits with top State Department officials left her disappointed.
On Jan. 20, 1981, when the hostage crisis finally came to an end and the hostages were brought to Germany for family reunions, Dotty Morefield was waiting for her husband with their son, Steven.
« When he came out, the psychiatrist that examined him told him he should be ready to accept the fact he’ll probably be divorced in a year because, he said, your wife has turned into a very strong person,’ » Dotty Morefield recalled. « And Dick just laughed at him. He says ‘You don’t know my wife, do you?’ And he walked out of the room. »
After getting home, the Morefields celebrated, but what they didn’t know was that the end of the hostage crisis was just the beginning of a decades-long battle with their own government to get compensation for what they endured.
The Justice for United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Act, passed in 2015, provided $4.4 million to each hostage or their heirs, and $600,000 to families. The money came from fines and seizures against companies illegally doing business with Iran. However, less than a quarter of the money was paid, because 9/11 families were later added in and the fund was depleted, even though Iran was not implicated in the 9/11 attacks.
« I feel they’ve betrayed us. I feel they have neglected us. I feel they have mistreated us, » Dotty Morefield said.
Tom Lankford, an attorney who has represented the hostages for nearly two decades, said he has struggled to try to get them compensation.
« We should have been fully paid by now, and that would have enabled hostages to do a lot of special things that they wanted to do, provide education to their children or grandchildren, take that one glorious trip they’d always wanted to take, » Lankford said. « And they haven’t been able to do it. And it’s broken my heart. »
Lankford said the money could have helped the hostages and their families long after the cameras and celebrations faded away.
« You have to understand that they were kept in the horrible political prison in Iran, that they were, many of them were housed right across from the torture room where Iranians, military and others, were being put to death through water houses stuck down their throat or choked through various means, » Lankford said. « And they could hear that all. And they were told ‘Tomorrow’s your day.’ So every time the jail cell opened, they thought ‘This is the last sound I’m ever going to hear.’ »
The money could also have served as compensation for family members who went more than a year without seeing their loved ones, and who dealt with the aftermath of the hostage crisis.
« Somebody once asked me, how is it different growing up with this in your childhood? And it’s like, well, I don’t know, because I don’t have another childhood to compare it to, » Steven Morefield said.
Dotty Morefield said her husband dealt with trauma for the rest of his life. He returned to work at the State Department before his death in 2010. He was 81 years old.
« It changed his life. It shortened his life, » Dotty Morefield said. « He couldn’t be in a room with a door closed. I’ve been in hotel rooms where I found him asleep on the floor. He’s got towels laid out so he could track the door. All of these things – I mean, we laugh, it can be funny – but it wasn’t funny for him. It was panic. »
Dotty Morefield now lives at an assisted living facility, but if she’s slowed down, it’s hard to notice. She volunteers at the Boucheron Mystery Writers Conferences, where an award was created in her honor to celebrate volunteers like her. Dotty Morefield said that she is also still fighting for justice for her husband of 55 years, and all those who were impacted by the hostage crisis.
« I’ve had a good life. Steven has had a good life, » Morefield said. « But that money represents justice. It doesn’t represent trips or buying things or any of that. It represents justice. »
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