By Malini Wilkes

Rocky Sickmann was a high school senior in Krakow, Missouri, when he enlisted in the Marines in 1975. His dream was to become a Marine Security Guard (MSG), stationed at a U.S. embassy somewhere exotic and far from home.

“It was just a Marine in dress blues in front of the American embassy that I wanted to become, and see the world, coming from a very small country town in the middle of Missouri,” said Sickmann. “And that is what I did.”

It was a fateful choice for the young sergeant. After spending a few years as an infantryman, he applied for the MSG program, and reported for duty at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in October 1979. Less than a month later, Islamic militants stormed the compound, and for the next 444 days, the embassy became a prison for Sickmann and 51 other Americans.

Three decades later, Sickmann can still recall every detail of the harrowing days and nights in the hands of his captors. For the first month, he was tied to a chair and not allowed to speak. He was handcuffed, blindfolded and had to knock on the door to request an escort to the restroom. If he knocked too loudly, they made him wait.

He and the other hostages were interrogated and forced to watch torture videos with scenes of people dropped in vats of boiling tar, whipped with rubber hoses and shot in the head. He vividly remembers the threats, the humiliation and the fear.

“For 444 days there was a gun pointed at us, with the mock firing squad, with the Russian roulette,” said Sickmann. “You don’t forget those days.

“It was 444 days of a bad movie experience.”

Marine Security Guards like Sickmann protect embassies and consulates overseas. The program is a partnership between the Marine Corps and the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. MSGs safeguard staff, property and classified documents inside the embassy facilities, while the host country provides security outside the perimeter. In many countries, political and diplomatic tensions make American embassies flashpoints for protests and violence, and MSGs have to be ready to respond to any emergency.

Marine Security Guards have protected American facilities against “anti-American riots and demonstrations and have helped evacuate U.S. diplomats and their families during times of crisis,” according to a State Department document. The department also credits MSGs with saving the lives of personnel “threatened by civil unrest, earthquakes and floods.”

Marine Security Guards are the first line of defense if something goes wrong—like the events that unfolded on the morning of November 4, 1979, at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

“That morning the demonstrators were out there. They were demonstrating every day,” said Sickmann.

He was getting breakfast when his walkie-talkie suddenly crackled with an urgent “recall, recall!”

As he raced back to the main building, he saw protesters had swarmed the embassy gates. One group began knocking down the front door. And another group pushed its way into the basement. Sickmann was called downstairs to help.

“As we get to the basement, the smoke is billowing in, and you get your gas mask on, and your gas mask is going from clear to fog, and you get this shotgun in your hand, and then through the smoke you see the Iranian women come,” he said.

Photo credit St. Louis Post-Dispatch photo by Karen Elshout

Marine Sergeant Rocky Sickmann waves to the crowd just outside Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

The Iranian men were using the women as human shields, pushing them slowly forward, and Sickmann got the order to hold his fire until more help arrived.

“Had we fired upon them and killed some of the women, they probably would have [paraded] them in front of everybody else,” he said. “Like, ‘Look they are shooting unarmed innocent women.’”

In his rational mind, Sickmann knows he had no other choice than to stand down and exercise restraint, but like many combat veterans, he’s never stopped wondering “what if.”

“We were held for 444 days and every day we sat there—from one day, to one week, one month, one year—we wished we would have pulled [the trigger on] the shotgun,” he said.

Sickmann didn’t pull the trigger, and instead served his country by enduring a long ordeal that tested his principles and shook him to the core.

“You got to the lowest level and you hated your family, you hated yourself for deciding to do this, you hated your government, you hated everybody,” he said. “You finally came to a reality that there is only one person that you need to hate, and that is the people that took you.”

When the hostage ordeal finally ended, the young Marine Security Guard came home to marry his high school sweetheart. He left the Marines and became a successful sales executive with Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis.

He knows the military revised some of its procedures for embassy security following the Iran hostage crisis—just as it’s now revising procedures following the deadly September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

The Pentagon is in the process of adding another 1,000 MSGs to the current force of 1,200. Captain Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps public affairs officer, says they’re seeking the “best of the best, especially now that we’re growing.”

“Whether working in the embassy or on liberty after the job, it may be one of the few interactions that some of these communities have with an American,” said Flanagan. “So it’s more reason to be of the highest moral character to act an ambassador for the United States.”

The program is not for everyone. It accepts only single men and women who can commit to living abroad for three years unaccompanied by family, sometimes in tough, isolated parts of the world.

The MSG mission is “more important than ever in the current threat environment” where “determined terrorists will not hesitate to harm innocent citizens, including professional diplomats, at any vulnerable location in the world,” the State Department document says.

Sickmann knew from the beginning that Tehran would be a rough duty post, though he says he didn’t realize the depths of the anger and resentment toward the United States.

“We used to hear the young [demonstrators] chant about America. These kids had never met an American. They had never gone to America, but they had been trained to hate it,” said Sickmann, “And that is my concern to this day.”

Looking back at his career as an MSG, the former Marine says, “I don’t ever wish my bad days as a hostage on anyone. Whenever I think I’m having a bad day, I think of when I was stripped nude and made to face a wall for a mock firing squad. This makes me think how wonderful it is to be free.”

But even after the torment he endured, Sickmann says he would do it all over again.

“The Marine Corps prepared me for my survival as a hostage for 444 days,” he said. “And it was an honor to be a Marine Security Guard and to serve our country.”

–Malini Wilkes is a former director of story development for the USO.