Former Iran hostages reuniting 30 years after their release were greeted by a long line of cheering, clapping cadets Friday, echoing the rousing hostage reception here in 1981.
Fourteen former hostages visiting the U.S. Military Academy for a weekend reunion kicked off the day with a short walk into a stiff, snowy wind past a cordon of 4,400 shouting cadets. Some of the hostages took time to shake hands with the camouflage-and-fleece-clad cadets, thanking them for the grand welcome.
"I can't describe it. It's a little too much. We're all overwhelmed," former hostage Bruce Laingen said with a big smile as he walked into the first of a series of private meetings with cadets and faculty.
The hostages, escorted by family members and one widow, will mix in panel discussions about their experiences with socializing over the long weekend. Also at the private event are five veterans of the ill-fated military rescue mission that ended in a helicopter crash that killed eight U.S. servicemen.
Fifty-two hostages were released Jan. 20, 1981, after 444 days of captivity.
The hostages then touched down on U.S. soil at nearby Stewart International Airport and rode buses to this historic Hudson Valley academy on a route lined with yellow ribbons and thousands of cheering people. The hostages, unaware that Americans were closely following their ordeal for more than 14 months, were stunned by the emotional welcome.
The newly released hostages spent several days at West Point, connecting with their families and mixing with cadets.
"Walking in here, things are coming back," said Dr. Paul Needham as he craned his neck to take in the high ceilings of the academy's cathederal-like mess hall. "The blur was 30 years ago; things moved so quickly."
The former hostages appeared to relish the chance to revisit the scene of their homecoming. Laingen even wore a yellow ribbon that read "FREE THE HOSTAGES." Cadets gave another exuberant cheer for the former hostages and the rescue mission veterans at lunch.
Col. Mark McKearn, class of 1981, recalled escorting a pair of hostages to the mess hall 30 years ago. He said he was peppered with so many questions from the former hostages about his daily life as a cadet that he never got to finish his filet mignon.
"I expected to see this thousand-yard stare from somebody who'd been in captivity for 444 days, and they had great energy. They were very inquisitive," said McKearn, who oversees cadets at West Point.