Marine Corps Sgt. Rodney “Rocky” Sickmann was behind a 4-inch steel door when an Iranian mob began ramming it with a telephone pole.
Sickmann — then just 22 years old — radioed other Marines.
“The plaster is falling off the door,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to take.”
It was Nov. 4, 1979, and angry Iranians were storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Suddenly, Sickmann heard the voice of a fellow Marine downstairs:
“They’ve gotten in.”
Before long, Sickmann would become one of 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 gut-wrenching days.
Almost 40 years later, Sickmann still remembers the sound of the men scaling the wall at the embassy, the interrogations when he was forced to stand naked a rifle to his head and — after being held captive for two Christmases — hearing the crunch of snow.
“Being held hostage was (like) a different car accident each day for 444 days. Things come back that you never forget,” he said.
Sickmann talked about his captivity while serving as the guest speaker at the non-profit Folds of Honor event Saturday at Fremont Golf Club. The fundraiser began with golf that afternoon.
In the evening, Nathan Kalin, director of golf for the club, announced that $30,000 had been raised for the Folds of Honor foundation, which benefits families of American military heroes.
Folds of Honor was founded in 2007 by Maj. Dan Rooney, who served three tours of duty as an F-16 fighter pilot in Iraq. Rooney developed the foundation to provide educational scholarships to spouses and children of America’s fallen and disabled service members.
Sickmann, a retiree of Anheuser-Busch, joined Folds of Honor as senior vice president, Budweiser Accounts.
During his Saturday night talk, Sickmann spoke about his captivity and the importance of Folds of Honor.
Sickmann grew up in Krakow, a small community south of Washington, Mo. Like other family members who’d been in the military, he wanted to serve his country.
He chose to become a Marine after seeing a picture of a one in front of an American Embassy with the words: “See the world — join the Marine Corps.”
Sickmann joined the Marines and went to his first duty post as a security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
In 1979, Iranians were enraged when U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided to let Iran’s deposed dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, get cancer treatment in New York.
Ten thousand miles away from the U.S., Sickmann had just gotten off guard duty on Nov. 4. He donned civilian clothes and ate breakfast with three of six people who’d later be rescued by Canadian forces.
“Little did we realize as we were sitting there that four hours later our lives would turn upside down,” he said.
Sickmann walked into a motor pool gate. Iranians were demonstrating in front of the U.S. Embassy as they had the past two weeks, but the host government was providing protection.
Suddenly, the word “Recall” began sounding on Sickmann’s walkie talkie.
He turned to the front gate and saw Iranians coming over the wall, while Iranian security simply walked away.
“I knew we were had,” he said.
Sickmann ran to a chancellery and he and other military personnel secured the door. Nine of 12 Marines at the embassy were able to make it in before the door shut.
Inside, the men only had a snub nose .38 revolver and a sawed off shotgun with which to defend themselves. Sickmann was assigned to the steel front door being rammed by infuriated Iranians.
After learning Iranians had made it inside the embassy, he put on a gas mask. A billow of smoke came from one of the rooms.
Four Iranian women came from that room. Behind them were four Iranian men slowly pushing the women forward.
“They knew the mindset of a military man or woman wouldn’t shoot unarmed innocent women,” he said. “About this time, our orders were ‘Don’t fire, don’t shoot, help is on the way.’”
But there was no help.
The Marines popped tear gas and the Iranians fled. The Marines went to the top of the embassy. Iranians then began bringing captured Americans to the front of the steel door with pistol to their head to beg for their lives.
Sickmann and other Marines were told it would be 18 hours before help could come from America. They were ordered to give themselves up and told the situation would be resolved with diplomacy.
They were taken downstairs and blindfolded. He still could see images of the images of Iranians who’d take a picture of themselves with a knife or gun pointed at his head.
“It was too surreal that this could be happening,” he said.
For the next 30 days, the men were subjected to mock firing squads and Russian roulette. One week, he was put at the head of a bed with a naval officer at the foot. His wrists were tied to the other man’s ankles and visa versa. Other times, when not being interrogated, hostages were tied to chairs facing the corners of a room.
To survive such an ugly situation, Sickmann would think about every happy memory he could — mentally going into details of his mom making pancakes; sleigh riding down a hill; a state championship football game; every baseball game.
And in his mind, he had the picture of Jill — the young woman who’d later become his wife.
As Thanksgiving approached, the men thought they’d be released for humanitarian purposes, but that holiday along with Christmas and New Year’s passed.
He then was tossed into a room with two other men. They’d sit in that room for the next 400 days. He was let out only seven times for 15 minutes each time.
Back home, news media camped out in the yard of his parents, a truck driver Virgil and Toni, who worked in a carpet store.
On April 25, 1980, Iranians rushed into the room, handcuffing, blindfolding and photographing the men. They put a blanket over the men and drove them nonstop for about 17 hours.
The Iranians had found the eight American military personnel who died trying to rescue the hostages.
That September, the men heard explosions near their building. The Iran-Iraq war had started. The men were handcuffed, blindfolded and taken back to the embassy in Tehran. They then were taken to Evan Prison where they sat until December 1980.
By this time, the men had become like wild tigers, not caring whether or not they were shot.
On Jan. 20, 1981, Iranians suddenly came into the room. The men were blindfolded, but their hands weren’t tied. Sickmann felt the fresh air.
Then his plastic-sandaled feet felt something he’d not felt for two years — snow. Snow hit him in the face and he heard the wonderful crunching of the cold stuff.
They were driven to a place where they heard a jet engine — something they’d prayed, hoped and cried for. It sounded like the opportunity to be free.
The American government had paid $8.3 billion to secure the hostages’ release.
Suddenly, the men were taken from the vehicle to the plane while Iranians spit on them.
The 52 former hostages on the plane would wait another 20 minutes before takeoff. The Iranians waited until Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president so Carter wouldn’t get the credit.
When they crossed into Turkish airspace, they knew they were free. Carter met with the hostages in Germany. The hostages received a ticker tape parade in New York and met Reagan in the Oval Office.
Sickmann thinks about the eight men who gave their lives in the rescue attempt — who’ll never play catch with their children or walk them down the aisle at a wedding. He knows freedom isn’t free.
Only 35 of the hostages are still living today. Sickmann retired from Budweiser in 2016 after 34 years and went to work for Folds of Honor.
Recently, Sickmann was running to catch a 6 a.m. flight and having a bad day. He stopped to buy a banana, breakfast bar and water — and owed $4.44 in change.
Seeing that familiar number, Sickmann realized he’d rather have a bad day in the U.S. — free — than be a hostage in a foreign country.
He commended those gathered at the golf club for raising funds for Folds of Honor, adding:
“This is our way to give back.”