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Remembering Terry Anderson

George Washington Carver said, “When common people do common things in uncommon ways, they command the attention of the world.”

Terry Anderson, a former Marine sergeant and chief Middle East correspondent of the Associated Press, was kidnapped by members of Shi’ite Hezbollah in March 1985. (Photo courtesy of Terry Anderson.)

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know Terry Anderson when I was writing my book Backbone, which covered how each of us can learn about leadership from the examples set by the indomitable spirits of Marine Corps non-commissioned officers, past and present. Many of us know of Terry’s work as a journalist, a philanthropist, and a survivor, but fewer of us know about his time as a Marine who served in Vietnam (and elsewhere). I got to hear about that time in his life, before his fateful days in the Middle East, and learn about how what he learned in the Marine Corps in part gave him the skills he needed to survive his time in captivity.

But Terry was more than just his professional achievements. He was a man of deep compassion, of genuine kindness, and of profound wisdom. He had a gift for deep listening. He could make you feel heard, valued, and important, that what you were saying at that moment was worthy of the complete focus of his attention.

And that was while I was interviewing him.

He believed in the power of words, the magic of stories, and the necessity of speaking the truth. He’s now passed away after complications following heart surgery. It makes sense to me that it’s his heart that gave out, as it’s the part of himself that he used the most.

On March 16, 1985, Terry Anderson was kidnapped. He had been a sergeant of Marines during the Vietnam War and was working as the Associated Press’s chief Mideast correspondent in Beirut, Lebanon. On his way home from a friendly game of tennis, he was taken from his car at gunpoint, put into the trunk of another car, and secreted to an unknown location. He had been kidnapped by members of Shi’ite Hezbollah, who hoped they could use him to barter for terrorists who were being held prisoner in Kuwait. Other than about 15 minutes a day to use the bathroom and to try to wash, he spent his days on a cot, chained to a radiator—for almost seven years.

After his capture, Anderson was held somewhere in the rabbit warren of West Beirut. By 1985, he was no longer alone. Five hostages were sequestered in a basement divided into cells by cheap plasterboard. With him were Father Lawrence Martin Jenco of Catholic Relief Services; William Buckley, Beirut station chief of the CIA; Reverend Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian missionary; and David Jacobsen, director of the American University Hospital in Beirut.

These men also had to deal with repeated death threats. Buckley became feverish, then delusional. He disappeared.

Food was scant. One night, they were fed a mixture of raw meat and cracked wheat called kibbeh naiya that made them sick: Gastroenteritis is no joke when you are not allowed to use the bathroom on your own schedule.

In our conversations, Terry credited his time in the Marine Corps as one of the keys that allowed him to survive his time in captivity.

Terry had joined the Marine Corps when he was 17 years old, just three days out of high school. He could have gone to college. He was a National Merit Scholar and he had scholarships available from several schools. But money was tight, and he didn’t feel he had the maturity yet for college. He thought he could prepare for college and gain that maturity through the Marine Corps. After he returned from the recruiting office, his father was very upset with Anderson’s decision. But Anderson was confident he had made the right choice, and felt it was the honorable thing to do. Since he had not yet turned 18, the Marine Corps held him in California for two months before sending him overseas.

Anderson matured in a hurry. “I got the patented Marine Corps leadership and they do it really well. They take young men, give them responsibility, and teach them how to be leaders.” When he joined the Associate Press after graduating from college, the AP discovered that he could operate effectively in dangerous situations. Not all journalists had the ability to function when bullets were flying. Anderson got the stories they wanted without getting killed and without endangering other journalists. “If you get killed,” Anderson said, “you can’t file your stories.”

Anderson’s early assignments in the Marine Corps included a stint in Japan serving with the Far East Network, which was a Joint Service organization run by the Air Force, with about six Marines. “We were nominally assigned to the Marine Barracks. I get this call from the first sergeant, and he says, ‘You got orders.’” In 1969, Sergeant Anderson came back to the States, attended the Combat Correspondent’s Orientation Course, and then was shipped off to Vietnam as a Combat Correspondent.

It was an odd existence with contradictory experiences. Because of his talent, experience, and qualifications, he lived in the Danang press center, where there were restaurants, showers, and air conditioners. He would get assignments to go into the field, grab his pack, go out to the hospital, and then hitch a ride on a medevac helicopter out to where the stories were. The reason the medevac was going in was because people had gotten shot—he was leaving the comforts of Danang for the heart of combat.

Even though he was a journalist, like all Marines, he was a rifleman first. When joining a unit in combat, even though he wasn’t a regular part of that unit, he was put to work where it was most needed. “They’d stick you in the shortest squad, hand you some mortar rounds—somebody’s got to carry the mortar rounds, and you’re the new guy—they don’t care that you’re a sergeant,” Anderson remembered. Eventually, he would return to Danang and all its comforts to write and file stories about what he had experienced and observed. Then the cycle would repeat again. Anderson recalls: “We spent more time in the bush than anybody.”

Eventually, Anderson said goodbye to the Marine Corps and enrolled at Iowa State University, studied broadcast journalism, and graduated   in   1974.   He   then   joined the Associated Press. He traveled to hot spots around the globe, always heading for action. He felt that good journalists want to go where the stories are, no matter what the dangers. The stories that come out of war zones are important and necessary, both to educate and inform the public and to get the story on the front page.

The war zones are dangerous, however, and not everyone has the advantage of Marine Corps training and experience. When Anderson held the senior post in Beirut, he knew he had to take care of his journalists and make certain they had the skills needed to function in dangerous situations. While he was in charge, his people filed exceptional stories, but not one journalist was killed. Anderson credited his experiences as a Marine and in Vietnam as crucial to his success in both areas: “The Marine Corps, Vietnam, having actually been in a real war, that was all important, and helped make me a better journalist.”

On December 4, 1991, after 2,454 days as America’s longest-held hostage, Anderson was released. He began working with the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a major organization that strives on behalf of journalists in danger, fighting to protect writers who have no idea of how to deal with dangerous situations. He also helps to teach them how to write about war.

“If I send you to Wall Street to cover a story,” he told me, “I have a reasonable expectation that you’re going to know what a put and a call is, and the history of the stock and the bond. That’s basic professionalism. But we’ve got people coming in to cover war stories who don’t know the difference between an M-16 and an M-14, let alone all the duties of a sergeant or a major, who don’t know the functions of a platoon or a company, and have next to no idea of how a military or paramilitary organization operates. That doesn’t make for a good story, and it’s dangerous, for the military as well as the journalist.”

Following his release, Anderson battled behind the scenes with post-traumatic stress disorder while teaching journalism at several prestigious universities. Iran was ordered by a U.S. court in 2000 to pay him $324 million from American assets that had been frozen. While Anderson initiated successful charitable endeavors like the Father Lawrence Jenco Foundation, he also pursued several unsuccessful investments that forced him into bankruptcy in 2009. He was colorful, quick-witted, with a biting sense of humor—and, to me, he will remain a fun, odd duck who was kind and generous with his time and his inner self. 

Recalling Terry Anderson means more than simply remembering his ordeal of captivity: it means reflecting on the resilience and determination of the human spirit, hope, and the unfaltering faith in human kindness that his legacy represents. Anderson served not only as captive journalist; rather he became a tireless advocate for journalists’ rights worldwide—providing inspiration and hope to others experiencing similar situations. According to Terry, freedom is something worth fighting and dying for, something he demonstrated throughout his life and work.

Anderson’s ordeal serves as an eye-opener to the dangers that journalists must navigate when fulfilling their duty to report the truth. Held captive, blindfolded, and chained for months at a time with only his memories for company despite experiencing physical and emotional strain during his captivity, he refused to lose hope or give up hope as evidenced by his unwavering spirit and willpower to survive against all odds.

“I don’t have to deal with the loss of those seven years,” he said. “I didn’t lose them. I lived them. They weren’t pleasant, but I was there. I survived and I have a life to live…I have done my best to forgive, even if it’s impossible to forget.”

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Julia Dye, Ph.D., studied Hoplology, which combines anthropology and military history into the study of human conflict. She currently works at Warriors, Inc., the entertainment business’s premiere military advising company, and is the Publisher here at Warriors Publishing Group.

Her award-winning book, Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs, was first published in November, 2011. In his review of the book, GySgt R. Lee Ermey, wrote “OUTSTANDING! A great capture of the Marine NCO. This should be required reading for all Devil Dogs. A big ‘atta boy’ goes to the author.”

Her second book is Through My Daughter’s Eyes. “With unerring accuracy, Dye depicts the preteen mind, with all its angst, emotion, and hard-earned wisdom. What’s unusual in this coming of age story, though, is that Abbie must deal not only with the turbulence of the middle school years, but do it in the context of the particular stresses pressed upon military families whose loved one is deployed to a combat theater…” —Military Writers Society of America

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