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On a cold Sunday afternoon in November 1979 I was walking through the day room at Special Forces 5th Group headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when I saw a dozen of my teammates crowded around a TV set. One of them shouted, “Hey, Changiz, you raghead son of a bitch, come look at your brothers!”
“What brothers?” I asked.
On the television I saw footage of Iranian student radicals using ladders to climb over the walls of the US Embassy compound in Tehran. The TV announcer reported that rioters had taken control of the embassy and seized more than sixty American hostages.
Powerful emotions started to course through my body. “First, I’m not a raghead. I’m Persian. And secondly, these are not my fucking brothers!”
“Bullshit,” one of my teammates replied.
On TV, a young bearded Iranian spokesman proclaimed that they wouldn’t free the hostages until the US turned over the exiled former Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had fled Iran in July. US president Jimmy Carter had recently granted him permission to come to the United States to treat his advanced malignant lymphoma, thus unleashing a torrent of anti-American hatred from the young supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
My blood turned cold. I’d been watching the Iranian Revolution unfold over the last several months with mixed feelings and trepidation. While growing up in Iran, I’d seen the Shah develop into an increasingly unpopular, brutal, and arbitrary dictator. I knew then that his days in power were numbered. But I didn’t trust the mullahs who were opposing him, either, and particularly Ayatollah Khomeini, a radical Islamic cleric who had been living in exile in France and had promised a break with the past and greater autonomy for the Iranian people.
I had fled Iran myself at the age of twenty-three to seek a better life in a country that protected individual freedom and kept church and state separate. I also understood why many young Iranians distrusted the United States. The US had been the Shah’s closest ally and supporter for years, trading cheap oil for advanced military equipment and fighter jets.
My Special Forces teammates almost certainly didn’t understand this complicated history as they started to hurl abuse my way.
“Changiz, those savages are your brothers.”
Another said, “They touch a hair on any American’s head, we should nuke all of Iran into dust.”
“You belong with them, Changiz, not us!”
I responded with the only words I could think of: “Shut the fuck up!”
How could my teammates appreciate the depth and complexity of my feelings as I watched radical Islamic students chant anti-American slogans and burn the American flag? I’d grown up in Iran. My father, uncle, cousins, and two of my brothers still lived there. In fact, our house stood a mere half a mile away from the US Embassy. I’d visited the compound in 1974 to secure a visa that allowed me to travel to the United States. Five years later, I was a proud American citizen and a member of the Green Berets.
“Changiz, go back to Iran. We don’t want you here!”
“Shut your mouth!”
“Go home, camel fucker, and be with your own kind!”
“This is my home!”
Before we came to blows, a couple of my friends escorted me out. But over the next several days of what became known as the Iranian Hostage Crisis, I was subjected to almost constant insults and abuse.
Sometimes I got so frustrated and angry I responded with my fists. One evening I got into a fight with four fellow Green Berets around the pool table in the team lounge. Another morning just after PT, five guys jumped me on the first-floor barracks. Having trained for years in self-defense and martial arts, I knew how to defend myself. A couple of my SF buddies came to my aid. The staff sergeant on duty heard the ruckus and broke it up, and reported it to our first sergeant.
The next morning, with two black eyes and a swollen lip, I stood in formation with eighty-four other Green Berets when I heard the first sergeant call my name.
“Corporal Lahidji, front and center!”
I stepped forward, shoulders back. “Yes, sir.”
“At ease…” the first sergeant started. “Listen guys.… This guy’s a fucking American, and he’s a Green Beret, regardless of where he comes from. He works his ass off, and he’s here to protect the American people. So I don’t want you to fuck with him anymore. You understand?”
He repeated his statement three times, for which I was enormously grateful. Afterward, a couple SF soldiers who’d jumped me came over and apologized. I let it go, but internally continued to wrestle with the situation at the embassy in Iran. Knowing Tehran like the back of my hand and knowing that I could help free the hostages, I went to see First Sergeant David Huckson, who helped me compose a letter to President Carter.
It said: “Dear President Carter: My name is Sergeant Changiz Lahidji and I am an Iranian native serving in Special Forces at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Please give me permission to choose an A-Team and deploy to Iran to free the American hostages. I know the area well, and used to play soccer at the stadium across the street from the US Embassy. With your approval and support, I am sure I can come up with a plan that will succeed. Please don’t say no.”
Two months later, I received a reply on White House stationery that said, “Thank you for your concern. We appreciate that you have volunteered for a rescue mission. Please stand by.”
Around midnight on January 5, 1980—three months into the hostage crisis—I was sitting in my room on the third floor of the SF barracks, when I heard someone knock on the door. It was Sergeant Huckson. He said, “Get up, Changiz. Get up and get your shit together. You’ve got orders to leave immediately. Don’t forget to bring your ID.”
I threw my gear into a duffel and hurried outside. Two sergeants ordered me to get into a jeep and drove me to nearby Pope Air Force Base. In the bitter cold, I was instructed to line up with about two dozen other SF operators standing on the tarmac.
A captain said, “You’re going to be screened, tested, and trained for a special mission. Don’t ask any questions.”
A military C-130 flew us to a base in Colorado where we deplaned in the freezing cold. From there we were bused to a hospital where I underwent a physical examination. At the end I was given the code name Hector.
The guys in my unit immediately started busting my balls about my name. “Hector? You must be a Chinese Mexican.”
I secretly enjoyed it. It was better than being called a camel fucker or radical Islamist.
The next day all of us were up at 0630 for a PT test. Push-ups, sit-ups, a five-mile run. Three guys failed.
Five days later, they flew us to a camp that bordered Area 51 in the Nevada desert for a month of rigorous training that included endless hours at the shooting range, navigation tests, and running obstacles set up in underground tunnels that had previously housed nuclear missiles.
One afternoon they left me alone in the desert armed only with a radio beacon. Surrounded by sand dunes and with the sun beating down on me, I charged the beacon and waited for a plane to drop three bundles. The first contained a five-hundred-foot rope; the second, a balloon with a canister of helium; and the third, a special suit with a harness. I filled up the balloon and then put on the suit and tied one end of the rope to the balloon and the other end to the harness. Upon hearing a plane approach, I released the balloon, which pulled me into the sky.
A C-130 flew in low, snagged the rope, which cut the balloon free, and the load master and this assistant slowly reeled me in. The procedure, code-named Starlift and used by Special Forces to exfil forces from behind enemy lines, went smoothly, but the force of the plane pulling me messed up my back.
At the end of training, all two dozen of us had to complete a twenty-mile march through the desert with a rucksack and full combat gear in under five hours. Only fourteen passed.
The next day we were bused to Las Vegas and put up in a motel. Each man was handed a bag of a different color. Mine was black. The instructor said, “Go to Harrah’s casino. Observe everything and take mental notes. Then find a good place for extraction. We’ll have people watching you. Go to this pay phone and we’ll call. If you miss it, go to the next one, and we’ll call you.”
A couple days later, we were back at the barracks outside Area 51. One by one we were led to a small hangar filled with random gear and equipment. Our task was to mentally record as many items as we could in a minute.
After two months of training, only ten of us remained in the group. We still hadn’t been briefed on the mission. I was given a ticket back to Fort Bragg and dropped off at the Las Vegas airport wearing khaki pants, desert boots, and a long beard.
As I walked through the terminal looking for a place to buy coffee, I was surrounded by five policemen, who led me into a room and started asking questions.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m an American.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I’m in the US Special Forces.” I handed them my ID card.
They looked confused. One of them said, “You have an accent.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Look, I’m with Fifth Group Special Forces. Call my superiors at Fort Bragg. They’ll confirm that I am who I say I am.” I gave them my commander’s number.
They searched me and my duffel first. In one of my pockets, they found a map of Las Vegas.
One of them asked, “What are you doing with this map?”
“Guys, I have a plane to catch. If you have any questions, call my commanding officer.”
After an hour of questioning they finally called Fort Bragg. I heard my commanding officer shout over the line, “You have no right to hold this man. Release him immediately!”
Sheepishly, one of the policemen looked at me and said, “Okay, you can go.”
I was back at Fort Bragg a couple of weeks, when I was summoned to the base’s JFK Center. An officer there asked, “Hector, do you still have your Iranian passport?”
“I do, sir, but it’s no longer valid.”
“We want you to go to the Pakistani Embassy in DC to have it renewed.”
Since Iran and the US had broken off diplomatic relations, the Iranian consulate was being run out of the Pakistani Embassy. The man who interviewed me there asked why I wanted to go back to Iran.
I lied and said, “I want to see my father.”
Once I was in possession of a valid Iranian passport, I was briefed on my mission. I was to go into Tehran on my own to collect intel and prepare things on the ground for Operation Eagle Claw—a top secret mission to rescue the hostages. After the US Embassy takeover, practically all of the CIA’s sources and assets in Iran had been arrested. They needed someone like me who knew the country well and could get around.
I was instructed not to tell anyone where I was going, not even my brother and mother living in California. I simply told my mother that I was being deployed to Florida for jungle training and would call her when I returned.
Part scared to death and part excited, I flew from Charlotte to New York City, then Kennedy Airport to Frankfurt, Germany. There, I was met by an intel officer, who gave me money, some of which I used to buy a ticket to Tehran.
In a matter of hours I was on a British Airways jet flying over Eastern Europe. I sat by the window dressed in civilian clothes—long-sleeved blue oxford shirt, chino pants, a short beard, and short hair. With my heart beating 200 times a minute, I breathed deeply to try to calm down. But the same fears kept popping into my head: What happens if I end up in jail? No one’s going to stop the Iranians from interrogating and torturing me, and putting me before a firing squad.
Since I had told the consul in DC that I was going to visit my family, I made sure to carry souvenirs—polo shirts for my father and uncle wrapped in nice paper, blue and white, not red, because Muslims think the color red brings bad luck; blue jeans for my cousins; and boxes of See’s chocolates for my female relatives.
We landed. Trembling from head to toe, I shouldered my black backpack and entered the terminal. The building looked the same as it had last time I’d seen it, seven years ago. But the people seemed different. No one was smiling. Women wore long skirts, and the men had long beards.
I retrieved my small suitcase from the baggage claim area and got in line for Customs. Five very serious-looking officials started looking me over. My heartbeat rose even higher.
“Open your suitcase and backpack,” one of the guards barked.
Guards started to rifle through them. One uniformed official asked, “Suma as kuja amadi?” (Where are you coming from?)
“The US,” I responded in Farsi.
“To visit my father. He’s sick.”
“How long are you staying?”
“Two weeks. Maybe more.”
“What do you do in the United States?”
“I work in my brother’s gas station.”
“What’s your job at the gas station?”
“I pump gas.”
The senior official studied my passport and said, “Lahidji.… Who is Yusef Lahidji to you?”
“You mean Colonel Lahidji?” I responded.
“He’s my uncle.”
The senior official’s face creased into a smile. He patted me on the back and said, “Kush amadi Changiz Khan.” (Welcome, Changiz.)
I was so relieved that I gave him a hug. “Merci.”
“Did you bring us anything from the States?” he asked with a wry smile.
“Only my love of Iran.”
He waved me through. Outside the terminal, I saw a well-dressed man in his midthirties holding a sign with my name on it. He introduced himself as Massoud. As we drove in his BMW 5 series, he explained that he used to work for the US Embassy, and asked what I had been doing in the United States.
I repeated the same answer from before. “I work in my brother’s gas station.”
He seemed well educated and socially polished. If he knew anything about my mission, he didn’t let on. But he did say, “Don’t worry about anything. I don’t like the present regime either. I want to be free.”
On the way to the hotel, I asked him to drive past the US Embassy. Outside, I saw sidewalks crowded with people, dressed in black or shades of gray. The women wore hijabs (head coverings). It appeared as though all the color and joy of life had been drained out of them. What remained were serious, dour expressions, dark-colored clothes, and beards. The names of streets had been changed to honor martyrs and mullahs.
At an early age I had learned to distrust holy men. They struck me as crooks and hypocrites who sold religion as a way to gain control over people. Now I watched them parade proudly down sidewalks in long robes and beards.
I also saw lots of shabbily dressed soldiers and policemen. As we drove up South Moffatteh Street and approached the Shahid Shiroudi Stadium, the large US Embassy compound with several buildings appeared to our left. A huge banner atop the eight-foot-high fence read DEATH TO AMERICA.
We’ll see about that, I said to myself.
I asked Massoud to turn right on Taleqani Street and drive slowly past the main gate. Past it rose the large two-story, brick-and-stone chancellery where some of the hostages were being held. About a dozen civilian and military men dressed in ragtag uniforms stood guard with rifles and automatic weapons. I saw no tanks.
The security at the other four gates around the seventy-acre compound was equally unimpressive. Pedestrians passed freely on adjacent sidewalks as though unaware that fifty-two Americans were imprisoned inside.
I filed away these mental notes, then asked Massoud to stop at a café near the main bazaar so I could stretch my legs. I also wanted to talk to people and get a sense of what was going on.
I asked the stoop-shouldered waiter who served us, “How’s business?”
“Pretty good,” he answered.
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“I’ve been traveling out of the country the last several years and notice lots of changes.”
He shook his head and said, “Yes, this place is a zoo compared to before. Everything is more expensive, especially food.”
I checked into a modest five-story hotel close to the downtown telecommunications center. After I showered and changed clothes, I went downstairs to enjoy a delicious dinner of challow kabab, stewed tomatoes, adas polo (lentil rice), baklava, and tea. Some things hadn’t changed.
In the morning, I took the #111 bus and got off one stop past the embassy. I noted the guards at the front gates were changed every two hours. The guards in back rotated in four-hour shifts.
After a lunch of barbecued sheep’s liver and nan, I went to the telecommunications center near my hotel and called a number I’d been given of a special operation center in Germany. Speaking in code, I said, “Hey, John. How are you doing? I’ve got the candy. Now I’m going out to buy bread.”
It meant: I’ve arrived safely and am gathering intel. That night I drew a detailed map of the embassy compound noting the placement of guards and machine guns. The next morning I mailed it to someone at the German Embassy.
The next several days followed the same pattern—surveillance of the guards at the embassy compound day and night, noting numbers of guards, the times that shifts started and ended, and which direction the guards came from and went. I also listened to local television and scanned newspapers for news on what was going on inside the embassy and little details that revealed how the hostages were treated and where they were being held.
Because I knew that undercover soldiers patrolled the streets looking for spies and dissidents, I did my best to blend in and check to see that I wasn’t being followed. Every night, radical students gathered outside the gates to listen to speakers denounce the Great Satan. One day, I watched kids pour out of school buses and chant “Death to America” for the TV cameras. Another time, I saw guards beat several young men with clubs. Day five, as I circled the back of the embassy compound, someone struck the back of my head.
I turned abruptly to face my young assailant and said, “Agha bebakhashan” (excuse me), hoping he had mistaken me for someone else. Without saying a word, he continued throwing punches. I pushed him away, and hurried off. I wasn’t sure if it had been a random strange event or an attempt by Iranian agents to try to engage me.
I communicated everything via telephone to my contacts in Germany or mail to the German Embassy. Meanwhile, inside the US Embassy compound, the hostages spent tedious hours isolated from one another. Some were interrogated. Some were placed in solitary confinement. Others were awoken at night, stripped naked, and lined up against a wall to face mock executions. Their biggest fear, some of them said later, was that the mobs that gathered outside the walls and were whipped into near hysteria by speakers would break into the compound and slaughter them.
I was frightened as well, and by the end of my first week in Tehran starting to feel lonely. I had to resist the impulse to contact my father, uncle, or other relatives. Merely talking to them on the phone would put us all at risk.
Feeling nostalgic, I wandered past my old high school on Revolution Circle, passing shops and fruit stalls along the way. The gate was locked, but through the fence I saw boys playing basketball and soccer. I had participated in the same activities a decade ago. When I went to school, almost all of us were clean-shaven. Now the older boys wore full beards.
The second part of my mission involved hiring a bus to ferry US Delta and SF soldiers into Tehran from a staging area seventy-five miles south. The bus would also serve as backup transportation should US Navy helicopters be unable to land at the nearby soccer stadium to take the hostages out.
The plan for the Operation Eagle Claw was complex and involved multiple moving parts. It was scheduled to launch dawn April 24, when eight helicopters carrying 118 Delta Force soldiers would take off from the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier stationed off the coast of Iran and land at a site in the Iranian desert designated as Desert One, several hundred miles southwest of Tehran. USAF C-130s would rendezvous with the helicopters at Desert One, bringing with them 6,000 gallons of fuel. Eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters would then refuel and fly 260 miles closer to Tehran and spend the night at a second staging area known as Desert Two.
The actual rescue operation would take place the following night. US special operators would travel into Tehran by bus and truck. Some would disable electrical power in the city. Others would deploy to the embassy compound. Once they rescued the hostages, Delta Force soldiers would escort them across the street to the Shahid Shiroudi Stadium. Meanwhile, AC-130 gunships would fly over Tehran to provide air cover. Additionally, Army Rangers would capture the Manzariyeh Air Base near Desert Two so that C-141 transport planes could land and carry off the rescue team and hostages.
My ninth day in Tehran, I hired a Mercedes coach bus and driver for a week from a local company named TBT. The driver was a simple man of forty-five with three children. I paid him well and had him drive Massoud and me to inspect Desert Two, which was in the middle of nowhere. We spent the night in the nearby holy city of Qom, then returned to Tehran and waited for instructions.
On the afternoon of the 23rd, Massoud called me at my hotel and said, “The guests are coming tomorrow night at 0100.”
My anticipation skyrocketed. I telephoned the driver and told him to report with the bus in the evening.
That afternoon as I was trying to relax, Massoud called again and asked in an agitated voice, “Have you heard the news?”
“What news?” I asked back.
“There’s a serious problem. The guests aren’t coming.”
I turned the TV on in my room. A man on State Television reported that several American airplanes had crashed in the desert and all the Zionists on them had been killed.
A cold tremor passed through my body. I asked Massoud, “What should I do now?”
“I don’t know.”
“How am I going to get home?”
“I don’t know that, either.”
I found out later that the mission had been canceled because of problems with the helicopters. Soon after they landed at Desert One on the 24th, one of them was forced down due to rotor failure. Another pilot was blinded in a sandstorm and returned to the Nimitz. One of the remaining six had to be scrapped because of partial hydraulic failure due to the blowing sand. Because the operation required at least six helicopters, President Carter aborted the mission.
Then tragedy struck. During refueling for the flight out, one of the Sea Stallion helicopters collided with an Air Force EC-130 transport plane. Both vehicles burst into flames, killing eight servicemen. Survivors quickly fled the scene leaving behind four helicopters, weapons, maps, and secret documents, and the bodies of the dead men in the burning wreckage.
I waited at the hotel and prayed, “God, please keep me safe. I’m doing this for a good cause.” On the television news, I saw footage of Iranian radicals celebrating in the streets, chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Carter.” I felt sick.
Officials at the German Embassy knew where I was staying but didn’t contact me. So I called Massoud, who picked me up in his car and drove me to a safe house north of the city. There I waited another very anxiety-filled day with no additional news.
Clearly, the longer I remained in Tehran, the higher my chances of being arrested. Figuring that Iranian Revolutionary Guards and soldiers were closely watching the German and UK embassies, I abandoned the idea of seeking asylum there and decided to try to escape on my own.
Massoud drove me to the train station. As we passed through the city, the streets around the US Embassy were clogged by a massive demonstration.
I faced a choice: Either go west to Tabriz, which was near the border with Turkey, or travel south to Abadan, on the Persian Gulf. Tabriz was closer, but I wasn’t familiar with the city and I’d never been to Turkey. So I chose the thirteen-hour ride to Abadan instead.
Abadan was very familiar to me because I’d spent my elementary school years there, when my father served as the city’s chief of intelligence for the urban police. I returned to Abadan for the eleventh and twelfth grades and lived with my uncle, who was in charge of military transportation at the time.
I was a nervous wreck the entire bus trip, imagining I was going to be arrested by every man I saw in uniform. As I tried to sleep, horrible images of what would happen to me coursed through my head.
My plan was to go from Abadan to Kuwait, but I didn’t have a Kuwaiti visa. Upon arriving in Abadan, I went to the docks to see if I could find someone to smuggle me across the Persian Gulf on a boat. As luck would have it, while I was talking to some fishermen, I spotted my old school buddies Mansour and Mustafa buying fish. They were big, rough guys and excellent boxers. They greeted me warmly and offered to take me home with them to see their family.
I ended up staying with them for two days. Not wanting to put Mansour, Mustafa, or any of their relatives in any kind of jeopardy, I repeated the same cover story I had told everyone else: I was in Iran visiting my father and worked at my brother’s gas station in California.
Meanwhile, Mansour and Mustafa found a smuggler to take me to Kuwait on a redwood fishing boat for $150. The night I left, I said, “I love you guys, but I have to get back to work. Hopefully you can come visit me in the US sometime.”
The crossing of the Gulf lasted a very tense nine hours. When I arrived in Kuwait, I showed the Customs official my US passport and handed him $40. He let me in despite the fact that I didn’t have a visa.
I was hugely relieved and thanked God. From the dock, I took a taxi to the airport and bought an airline ticket for New York. At Kennedy Airport, I hopped a plane to Charlotte, North Carolina. From there, I hailed a cab that took me to Fort Bragg.
It was a beautiful spring day. As I emerged from the taxi with my full beard and backpack, guys in my unit looked at me with alarm. Then they slowly realized who it was.
“Holy shit, it’s Changiz!” one of them shouted.
“Look! He’s still alive!”
One of them ran off to tell our commander. Soon he and others were surrounding me, hugging me, and slapping me on the back.
“Changiz, you lucky bastard,” I heard one of them say. “We’re glad you’re back.”
My commander embraced me and said, “It’s good to see you again, Corporal. We thought you were dead.”
Then I heard one of my teammates say, “Changiz, you’ve proved you’re one of us.”
That comment struck to the center of my soul. I know the guy who said it meant it as a compliment. But after what I’d been through, his words were bittersweet.
Copyright © 2018 by Changiz Lahidji and Ralph Pezzullo