Students from across Missouri were asked what it means to be a hero as they filed into the gymnasium at Washington High School for the Missouri Association of Student Government (MASC) convention Thursday night.
Some joked and said it was someone who could fly. Others said it was someone who doesn’t want to do something but does it anyway for the good of others. Some named names of people in their family.
But what the more than 700 students who gathered that night probably didn’t realize is because of an event that happened in 1979 and in the 444 days that followed, a Krakow man who graduated from their school decades before would become known as a hometown hero.
Former U. S. Marine Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann, the keynote speaker at the event, told the students about the day he followed an order to “stand down” on Nov. 4, 1979, as a group of Islamic militants stormed the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran. The militants were angry because the United States government had decided to admit the sickly Shah of Iran for treatment.
Sickmann said those militants broke into a basement window and put unarmed Iranian women through as a shield.
“They knew we wouldn’t shoot unarmed, innocent women and we were told not to shoot,” Sickmann said. “But I always wondered what would have happened if I had pulled the trigger, but I didn’t.”
Sickmann said he and other soldiers in the basement threw teargas then retreated to the top floor of the embassy. Militants had grabbed some of the other Americans there and were on the other side of a door holding guns to their heads. Sickmann was ordered to open the door.
“We were on the phone with our government and they told us it would be 18 hours before help could get to us,” he said. “So the door opens and we were blindfolded and taken.”
Sickmann, who was only 22 at the time of his capture, told the students of some of the torture he and others went through for the next 444 days. They were tied to chairs and not permitted to speak for the first 30 days. They were interrogated and shown videos of people stripped naked and shot in the back of the head, whipped with rubber hoses and people who were dropped into vats of boiling tar.
The hostages were locked in rooms for more than 400 days and were only let out to bathe or use the restroom, if they didn’t knock too loudly on the door. Each time they left the room they were blindfolded.
But one particularly scary night, Sickmann said, the door burst open and they were taken out sans the blindfolds.
“That night two individuals with ski masks on and G-3s burst in and said ‘Come with us’ ” he said. “They take us out in the hallway and all the Americans are out there with their hands against the wall and they had guns pointed at us locked and loaded.”
Sickmann said his life passed before his eyes.
“They grabbed me and took me into a room and told me to strip naked,” he said. “People say how when you are close to death you lose control of your bodily functions. Believe me, it happens.”
The militants told Sickmann to turn around and put his hands on the wall.
“What’s the first thing you think of?” he asked. “Those videos they had just shown you a couple of weeks earlier. They obviously didn’t pull the trigger, but they wanted to make sure they were in control.”
Sickmann told the students of all he went through because he had followed orders. But because he followed orders, the 52 hostages that remained in custody after some were let go a year earlier, survived.
Sickmann doesn’t consider himself a hero, however.
He remembered eight men who died in 1980 in a helicopter crash after a failed rescue attempt ordered by President Carter. He said even when he wakes up in the middle of the night remembering the worst day of his captivity, he also remembers that at least he is still here and can enjoy his family.
“Those people are the heroes,” he said. “They won’t be able to enjoy (their families). They lost their lives and they did it for me and they did it for America.”