Mention Terry Anderson to people of a certain age, and watch the dawning recognition as they remember the Associated Press reporter kidnapped in Beirut by Hezbollah terrorists during the Lebanese civil war. After nearly seven years in captivity, he was released in December 1991 and given a hero’s welcome when he returned home to the U.S.
Mention Anderson to members of the Orange County Democratic Committee (OC Dems), and they will tell you about the man who became an active member of their organization not long after the 2016 elections. Scott Ruffner, chair of the local group, commends Anderson for his “passionate involvement” in local Democratic politics. The retired journalist is vice chair of the OC Dems and the group’s representative on the 7th U.S. District Committee.
Sandra Smith, secretary of the OC Dems, recognized him when he introduced himself at the first meeting he attended early in 2017. “When he walked in the room, and said he was Terry Anderson, my head came up and I thought, ‘The Terry Anderson! Oh, yeah, I recognize that smile.’” She had followed his story in the 1980s and 1990s and eagerly read “Den of Lions,” the memoir he published after his release from captivity.
Anderson moved to Unionville a couple of years ago after a camping trip along the East Coast convinced him Orange County was the best of all the places he had visited. He was looking to settle down after a long, peripatetic career as a Marine, journalist and journalism professor, among other things. It helped that two of his closest friends, Marcia Landau and Zack Burkett, live not far from the small cottage on Monrovia Road he decided to buy and remodel.
With a fenced-in yard for his three dogs and a chicken coop next to his house, Anderson has created a quiet life for himself. He hopes to adopt a couple of rescue horses before too long. He loves to cook for his friends and avidly follows the news.
His hair graying, he is still recognizable as the grinning ex-hostage in aviator glasses whose mustached face was plastered on front pages back in 1991. At 70, he exudes good humor and extraordinary intelligence, both of which helped him survive a nearly unimaginable ordeal.
“An outside boy”
He spent his early childhood in Vermilion on the Lake, a tiny enclave on Lake Erie near Lorain, Ohio. His father was the village cop. When Terry was a young boy, he and his parents and siblings moved to upstate New York where his father drove a truck and his mother was a waitress. A Boy Scout who rose to the rank of Life Scout, just shy of an Eagle, he said, “I was an outside boy. I always spent most of my time in the woods.”
After he graduated from high school, he decided to join the Marines. An acceptance letter from the University of Michigan and scholarship money did not deter him, nor did the entreaties of the adults around him. “My parents went crazy. My teachers went crazy. ‘What are you doing, boy?’” Anderson knew he wasn’t ready for college and said so.
Perhaps his boyhood love of camping and hunting had whetted his thirst for adventure, which comes with the territory in the Marines. He served in Japan, Vietnam and Okinawa. During his sixth and final year, he was a recruiter in Iowa. When his hitch ended, he enrolled in Iowa State University and graduated with a double major in journalism and political science.
“Most fascinating job I’ve ever had”
As a correspondent for the Associated Press, he headed back to Japan, where he had met his first wife. His job later took him to South Africa and then Beirut, Lebanon. It was there, during a civil war involving multiple factions, that the international hostage crisis unfolded. In March 1985, Anderson was kidnapped one Saturday morning on his way home from a tennis match with a photographer friend.
When Anderson looks back on his work for the AP in Beirut, his face breaks into an amazed grin. “Actually, it was the most fascinating job I’ve ever had in my life. It was intense. War’s going on—it was very dangerous in Beirut. Vicious civil war, and I lasted about three years before I got kidnapped.”
Asked why the Hezbollah terrorists chose him as a target, Anderson responded, “Because I was available, in large part. I was one of the few Americans left in town. There were only two or three foreign journalists left; everybody else had left. … Because they were watching me; because in their terms, people who go around asking questions in awkward and dangerous places have to be spies.”
Anderson was not a spy. As a journalist, he frequently visited the American Embassy in Beirut to talk with officials there. That was enough to draw the attention of his captors.
At the time, Anderson was living with the woman who would become his second wife, Madeleine Bassil, a Lebanese journalist, who was pregnant with his child. In his absence, Bassil gave birth to Sulome Anderson, who grew up to be a journalist and the author of a memoir, “The Hostage’s Daughter: A Story of Family, Madness, and the Middle East.”
“We helped each other”
During his captivity in one small bleak cell after another, Anderson was often in the company of other hostages, including a Catholic priest, a university professor and a Protestant minister. He got to know these men extremely well and learned from them. They held worship services, exercised in the cramped confines of their shared cell space and played games with the cards Anderson made from tiny scraps of paper.
Looking back on their shared experience, Anderson said, “We helped each other. Our different backgrounds contributed each to our survival, I think, and our different personalities. We didn’t always get along—we fought, argued. Sometimes we couldn’t stand the sight of each other, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re chained to the walls! What’re you going to do? You don’t get to go home. It’s difficult to storm out and slam the door. Door’s already locked.”
Although he is careful to say he wasn’t tortured the way Arizona Senator John McCain was during his captivity in Vietnam, Anderson was beaten, chained to the wall and often blindfolded. Never knowing if or when he would be released, he was at war with his roiled emotions as much as he was with his captors.
“Talking to myself, not God”
In “Den of Lions,” he writes about how he felt when he was abruptly placed in solitary confinement: “There is nothing to hold on to, no way to anchor my mind. I try praying, every day, sometimes for hours. But there’s nothing there, just a blankness. I’m talking to myself, not God.”
Nevertheless, he was grateful to his guards for their rare acts of mercy. Early on, they granted his request for a Bible and brought him a few other books. On occasion, they allowed him and his fellow captives to listen to a radio. Weirdly, though the food the captives received was minimal and of poor quality, there was a period when a guard brought them hot coffee every morning.
With the resourcefulness he learned as a Boy Scout and Marine and honed as a globetrotting journalist, Anderson figured out ways to communicate with hostages in other cells. They left tiny notes for one another in a pipe in a shared bathroom, and Anderson taught the other captives sign language so they could communicate across cells without attracting the guards’ attention.
Released at last
After he finally was released, the last of the American hostages in Beirut to be set free in that particular episode in history, he discovered the tangled web of international politics surrounding his excruciating situation. The Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deals during Reagan’s administration became an international news story in itself.
But Anderson could not spend all his time looking back. He married Bassil and tried to live a normal life with her and their daughter, whom he met for the first time when she was six years old, and sought out his daughter from his first marriage. Although he and Bassil eventually divorced, he said they have a warm friendship. He married and divorced a third time. Though sociable and talkative, he admitted his time in captivity left him with “severe communication problems” that caused trouble in his marriages.
“I had problems, and it took me a long time to begin to cope with them. People ask me, ‘Did you get over them?’ I don’t know! Ask my ex-wife—ask my third ex-wife. I don’t know; I am who I am, and certainly [the experience of captivity and its aftermath are] a part of it,” Anderson said. “It’s part of the assemblage of my life, which on the whole has been a lot better than it has been bad. I’ve accomplished some things that I’m proud of.”
Among his proudest accomplishments are the 50-some schools in Vietnam built with the aid of a foundation he created and which his local friend Marcia Landau directed for more than 20 years. He was determined to give back to the country he got to know as a Marine fighting in the Vietnam War.
“If I couldn’t laugh at myself …”
Despite his claim of communication problems, Anderson is disarmingly direct and self-deprecating. He refuses to believe that surviving a long, brutal captivity makes him special. He does not see his life as a sad story at all.
“Darlin’, I have been shot at, shelled, bombed, beaten, kidnapped, hospitalized three times. If I couldn’t laugh at myself, I’d be in pretty sad shape,” he said as a lengthy interview wound down.
“I managed to do six years in the Marine Corps, combat tour in Vietnam, 20 years as a foreign correspondent in some of the worst places of the world, cover wars, disasters, and never got hit—and never actually was seriously injured until I came home and I bought a horse, and she kicked me in the face. She nearly killed me.”
Running a finger down the side of his face, he continued, “I got 22 pins in my face. You see that? That’s the result of two plastic surgeries to make me look this pretty, and that’s what’s left. She caved the whole side of my face in. Now if that’s not funny, ironic—you gotta laugh at that. I still love horses.”