By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
A Portales woman still wrestles with demons that had their roots in the Iranian hostage crisis more than a quarter-century ago.
Trudy McKeel is the widow of John D. McKeel, a Marine guard at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, one of 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days starting in November 1979 following that country’s Islamic revolution. She shared her story of her husband’s attempt to move on with his life and his tragic death during Wednesday’s Portales Rotary Club meeting.
Mrs. McKeel said she moved to Portales from the Dallas area a little over a year ago at the urging of her son, Antonio Sanchez. It’s been a quieter life for her and given her a chance to be near family, she said.
“When I met him in 1985, he was fighting to get back into the Marine Corps,” said Mrs. McKeel, who runs a cleaning service.
He eventually won that battle, however, according to Mrs. McKeel, was only given menial assignments. He was declared unfit for military service in 1988, losing the only life he ever wanted — to be a Marine, she said.
Her husband said the guards were well equipped that day in 1979 to fight off the mob of poorly armed Iranian students who stormed the embassy, according to Mrs. McKeel. However, they were under strict orders not to shoot and couldn’t fight back.
She said she was aware he had been one of the American hostages when they met at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Dallas, but wasn’t aware of the psychological scars he carried.
He rarely talked about his captivity, however, his wife said it was obvious he was tormented by the memories. She said he suffered from post-traumatic stress as well as alcoholism.
At regular intervals, her husband would lock himself in a dark room for a week at a time, only leaving the room briefly for food and to use the bathroom, she said. He believed Paul Lewis, his cellmate in Iran and fellow Marine, was in the room with him and he would have imaginary conversations, she said.
“I wasn’t allowed to enter that room,” Mrs. McKeel said. “He would yell at me and make me leave if I did.”
Mrs. McKeel said her husband eventually talked about his captivity and she also read or heard from other people about his treatment.
During his captivity:
• He was cut in three places across the chest and sewed up without anesthesia.
• A bad tooth was extracted without Novocain or proper dental tools.
• Hostages were forced to view the burned bodies of Marines killed in an aircraft crash during a failed rescue.
• Captors would blindfold the hostages, put guns to their heads, and pull the triggers.
Mrs. McKeel said having a gun to his head during his captivity led to an agonizing fear of being shot in the head for her husband. That fear became reality in California in 1991.
The couple was living in Edelanto, Calif., where Mrs. McKeel was managing an apartment complex.
One night a tenant who was being robbed and terrorized at gunpoint escaped her attacker and ran to the McKeel’s apartment for help. In the struggle that ensued, the woman and Mrs. McKeel were able to flee, but the gunman turned the weapon on the her husband and shot him twice in the head, killing him.
After a fight with the Marine Corps involving quick work by veteran’s organizations, John D. McKeel, the man who felt he was disgraced by his organization, was buried with full military honors in Marine dress blues.
Following his death, Mrs. McKeel herself was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. She said she is still struggling to cope with the ordeal.
“Now I know what he lived with,” she said.
She is content knowing that full military honors were restored to her husband and he received the military funeral he desired.
“I feel like my husband died a hero — it was here in the U.S. though, not in Iran,” she said.
At a glance
• The Iran hostage crisis lasted from Nov. 4, 1979 to Jan. 20, 1981
• 66 hostages were taken but 52 remained in captivity for 444 days.
• The crisis occurred following tensions in Iran after the U.S. allowed the deposed Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to seek cancer treatment in the U.S.
• During Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue attempt, eight U.S. Marines died when two U.S. aircraft crashed in the desert.
• After the Shah’s death from cancer, President Jimmy Carter negotiated the Algiers Accords to bring the hostages home. They were not released until the exact moment Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president and Carter had left office.
• Iran’s religious leader Ayatollah Komeini was not informed of the students’ plans to storm the embassy but later backed them in their seige.