Six former Navy divers held hostage for 19 days in an ordeal three decades ago received Prisoner of War Medals Friday in a small ceremony attended by friends, family and Navy leaders here.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus presented the medals to the retired divers: Lt. Stuart Dahl, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Tony Watson, Master Chief Equipment Operator (DV/SWC) Jeffrey Ingalls, Master Chief Constructionman (DV/SWC) Kenneth Bowen, and Construction Electrician 2nd Class (DV/SWC) Clinton Suggs,
The parents of Steelworker 2nd Class (DV) Robert Stethem, who was killed by captors, accepted his award on his behalf.
“It was unbelievable to see all the support,” Bowen, 53, told Navy Times after the ceremony. “All the guys have come so far. Some of these guys I haven’t seen for 30 years. We’ve all put on some weight, lost some hair. When you start talking, it’s the same person. You just instantly have that bond right there.”
All five men were 1st and 2nd class petty officers on June 14, 1985, when their flight home from a mission in Greece was hijacked by members of the Amal militia.
The 23-year-old Stethem was beaten by the terrorists, who shot him at point blank range and dumped his body onto the tarmac at Beirut International Airport, a sadistic political statement that made headlines around the world.
Before the awards were given, Rear Adm. Kate Gregory, chief of civil engineers at Naval Facilities Engineering Command, put what happened to them over the following weeks in context. She said that the men were prepared for what they had seen in the wars of the 20th century, but couldn’t have anticipated the circumstances they found themselves in.
“These men were not prepared for who the enemy was, or what that battlefield was going to be,” Gregory said. “Those brave men instead displayed the honor, courage and commitment then that all of our sailors and officers aspire to demonstrate today.”
The Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad-affiliated hijackers took over the flight scheduled from Cairo, Egypt to San Diego, after boarding in Athens, Greece, when the divers started their journey home.
They diverted the plane several times between Beirut, Lebanon and Algiers, Algeria, over the following days, finally landing in Beirut on June 16, where they remained in captivity for two weeks before President Ronald Reagan intervened.
All five survivors went back to work and retired honorably years later. Bowen said it was necessary for his recovery, to continue on with his job.
“I think the teams and the community that we were with really were family and it was those guys and gals, part of the units that we were with, that really kept us sane,” he said. “Really, I don’t think could have done as well had I left it. To me, it was just part of healing and coming out of all that.”
Bowen, who retired as a master chief, said his notoriety sometimes followed him throughout the rest of his career, but not always.
“People didn’t really try to pull anything out,” he said. “I never opposed if they wanted to ask me what had happened. I would tell them. But I never really made a broadcast about it.”
The Prisoner of War Medal hadn’t been authorized in June of 1985, but Reagan signed it into law in November of that year.
A friend of one of the divers contacted the Navy Diver Foundation, which advocated on behalf of the group for their awards.
In the intervening 30 years, a Yokosuka, Japan-based destroyer bearing Stethem’s name was commissioned in 1995.
“Destroyers are named for people who have displayed great valor,” Mabus said. “And although Petty Officer Robert Stethem is not here to receive the medal today, the ship that bears his name will continue to honor his memory and his herosim for decades to come.”
Bowen said he already had a place in mind for his medal: The shadow box with his retirement flag, which he keeps with a poster of the Stethem’s commissioning.