Joe Cicippio was held hostage by the Islamic group Hezbollah in Lebanon for five years, often chained to a radiator in a room with blacked-out windows, cut off entirely from the outside world. Within weeks of his release in 1991, he asked if he could go back to his old job as the comptroller at the American University of Beirut.
He didn’t get rehired. But the workaholic Cicippio is still a full-time businessman at age 83, running a technology company in suburban Washington. He’s the drum major in a marching band. He travels with his elegant Lebanese wife, Elham, two or three times a year to Beirut, where they have a home, many good friends and a large boat docked on the city’s seafront.
What was the secret to rebuilding his life?
“I don’t get mad. I don’t believe in holding grudges. I don’t have any animosity toward anyone,” said Cicippio.
The release of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held by Afghanistan’s Taliban for five years, has unleashed a political firestorm that’s still playing out. As Bergdahl continues receiving treatment at a U.S. military hospital in Germany 11 days after his release, one of the many unanswered questions is what his mental and emotional state is. He has reportedly not called his parents.
A generation ago, some two dozen American men were seized in Lebanon at various times in the 1980s and held for years. The outcomes were mixed. All suffered mental and emotional anguish during captivity. Several were killed by their captors. Some survivors emerged with deep psychic scars and never fully recovered.
Cicippio spent most of those five years with just one other hostage, a man who spent his days and nights talking incessantly, as if addressing a roomful of nonexistent people. Another former hostage was consumed with bitterness, saying for years afterward that the hostage ordeal had ruined his life.
A number of ex-hostages, including Cicippio, sued Iran, the backer of Hezbollah, and collectively received tens of millions of dollars in compensation. Yet Terry Anderson, an Associated Press journalist held for seven years, received a 2002 legal settlement estimated at $26 million — and filed for bankruptcy seven years later.
Reliving Positive Experiences
Cicippio said he drew on all the positive things in his life before he was seized, and this helped him endure the endless days and return to the world largely unscathed.
“When I got out, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me. My wife said I was the same as before. And I just wanted to get back to my life. So I did,” Cicippio said in an interview at his Washington home, just down the street from Vice President Biden’s official residence.
But there were, he acknowledged, rough spots along the way.
A native of Norristown, Pa., Cicippio had spent several years in the Middle East when he accepted the job at American University of Beirut in 1984, at the height of Lebanon’s ruinous civil war. He was told the war didn’t impinge much on campus life.
“I got there and we were in the bomb shelter every night for the first week,” he recalled. Somehow, that didn’t discourage him.
Because of security concerns, he didn’t leave the campus for his first nine months there, but he did meet and subsequently marry Elham, who was taking classes.
On Sept. 12, 1986, a group of men approached Cicippio on campus. He thought they were students upset with him because he had just raised fees. He was bracing for a verbal confrontation, but instead was hit on the head with a gun and dragged semiconscious off campus and placed in the trunk of a car.
When his blindfold was eventually taken off, he was in a kitchen, the first of 20 places he would be held over the next five years. He never knew exactly where he was, though he had hints.
Once he could hear the planes coming and going from Beirut’s airport. Another time he was in the mountains, which he gleaned from his blindfolded journey in a car that traveled up steep hills. Other times he knew he was in the countryside based on the quiet broken only by farm animals.
Always In Chains
Regardless of the location, his conditions were little changed. He was almost always chained, often to a radiator. He had only one or two fellow hostages.
He was told to never look at his captors so he couldn’t identify them, even though they almost always wore masks. Communication was minimal. Mostly, the guards simply shoved food onto the floor and periodically escorted Cicippio to the bathroom.
Once, his fellow hostage told the Hezbollah guards he thought they were Jewish. They then spent hours pummeling him, with Cicippio nearby, chained and helpless.
“It was always a relief to go to sleep at night because it meant you had made it through the day,” he said. “You never knew how long this would last.”
His salvation was music. Cicippio had joined the Reilly Raiders Drum and Bugle Corps as a young man in Pennsylvania in the 1940s and is the band’s drum major today.
His Beirut captors would sometimes play classical music in another room, and Cicippio would stand and gesture as if conducting an imaginary orchestra playing Beethoven or Bach. When the music stopped, he would relive it, using his index fingers as drumsticks.
“That was a great relief for me,” he said. “I would play that music over and over in my head.”
After two years, guards began bringing him books. He read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time on five occasions.
“I still don’t understand it,” Cicippio said. His library was limited, and he estimates he read the Quran more than 100 times, memorizing many parts.
He was allowed to write to Elham once. But later that day, he went to the bathroom and saw his note — it had been torn to pieces and dropped in the pit toilet he was using.
Freed At Last
Cicippio was freed on Dec. 2, 1991, two days before Anderson, who was the final American hostage released. After all those years of isolation, he was suddenly mobbed by the media that wanted his story.
He found that a slight, previous stammer had become more severe, a consequence, he believes, of speaking so infrequently for those five years. During his captivity, his weight plummeted from about 200 pounds to 130. He initially had trouble sleeping at night.
The toughest blow of all came on his plane flight out of the Middle East. Elham told him that his eldest son, from a previous marriage, had died of a heart attack at age 30 while Cicippio was in captivity. One of his sisters had died of cancer and another would die, also from cancer, just two months after he was freed.
It wasn’t just his own world that had changed.
“The pace of everything seemed quicker. All of a sudden there were fax machines. There were so many women in the workplace. The stock market had gone crazy. I felt just like Rip Van Winkle,” he said.
On a trip to a shopping mall, it started pouring rain. “I just stood there with my arms out and got soaking wet,” he said. “It was such a great feeling after so many years of being locked up inside.”
Cicippio and the other Lebanese hostages were treated as heroes, and he went on speaking engagements around the country for more than a year. He led parades and tossed the coin before the opening kickoff at the Rose Bowl.
Then he wanted to get back to work. He joined USAID in Washington as a senior financial officer. He is now the CEO of Technical Specialties, an information technology company.
“I always liked keeping busy,” said Cicippio. “That’s who I am, and that’s what keeps me happy.”
Asked what he thought of the Bowe Bergdahl case, Cicippio just wished him well and quoted the Bible: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.”
Greg Myre is the international editor at NPR.org. Follow him @gregmyre1
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