Glendale — Kevin Hermening doesn't believe he is a hero. Though to much of America in 1979, that's exactly what he was.
Hermening stood in the center of the Nicolet High School community room last week and recounted the events that led to the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover and the 444 days he spent in captivity during the Iranian hostage crisis.
The former Marine and Oak Creek native painted the political picture of Iran and U.S. relations before Nov. 4, 1979, when protesters turned volatile and stormed the embassy in Tehran, capturing 52 Americans. Hermening was the last and youngest American captured in the embassy and held hostage by Shiite Muslims. He was 20 years old at the time, assigned as a Marine sergeant to guard the embassy.
Now a well-known event, that was in-part retold in the motion picture "Argo," it was a reality for Hermening. "Argo" depicts the rescue of six Americans during the hostage crisis. Hermening wasn't among the six to escape, though he says the footage showing the actual takeover closely mimicked how it happened.
Hermening remembers vividly the moments that led to his capture. Before the embassy was overrun, he and his fellow Marines unleashed tear gas that delayed the captors from entering the embassy for two hours, enough time he says for many of the embassy's classified documents to be destroyed.
Before he was captured, Hermening said he was in the communications vault by accident, transporting shot guns from one part of the building into the vault.
"I had been trying to get the fire extinguisher out of the vault, down the hall, to the second floor door where they were trying to burn their way through that doorway when suddenly the decision was made to open that door," he explained. "The vault door at the other end of the hall in which I was located at that time was closed on 12 Americans."
Those 12 Americans were all captured.
Americans rallied for hostages
Unbeknownst to the captives at the time, Americans everywhere began to root for their freedom.
"We had no idea that back in the United States, your parents — those who are about as old as me or older — your parents would have been either praying for us, writing letters to us while we were there," he said.
More than 40,000 cards and letters were written to the three hostages from Wisconsin, though they were never actually mailed. Hermening, who still has many of those letters, said the Oak Creek Post Office held on to the mail, knowing they would never be delivered to the hostages.
The American people viewed the hostages as heroes, Hermening said. Though, he told the Nicolet students they were far from it.
"I am here today to tell you that we were not heroes. We are not heroes. We don't deserve to be called heroes for what happened to us," he said. "We were survivors. We were victims of a bad circumstance and bad timing and being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The true heroes, he says, were the men who perished in the desert 200 miles south of Tehran on April 25, 1980, during a failed rescue mission. Marine helicopters were at a refueling area, known as Desert One, waiting to refuel and head to Tehran. They were short two helicopters the night of the rescue mission and it was aborted. The helicopters were heading back to the Persian Gulf. As one took off, waiting for the others to follow, a wind storm pushed the helicopter to the side where its blade sliced through a fuel tank and exploded.
"Eight men, three Marines and five Air Force unit men that night became the only heroes of the hostage crises. They left behind seven orphaned children who never saw their dads again, spouses, parents, brothers and sisters and other relatives and friends," he said.
The Special Operations Warrior Foundation was created immediately after the rescue mission. The foundation pays for the college education for every orphan child of special operation personnel who die during service. Hermening donates his time and money to the organization. He doesn't accept money to tell his story, but recommends donations be made to the foundation.
Hermening was finally freed on Jan. 20, 1981. During the 444 days in captivity, he tried to escape once, but his efforts were thwarted and landed him in solitary confinement for 43 days. He was kept in a small room with nothing more than a box spring, only let out twice a day to use the bathroom.
Despite the trauma, Hermening said the eight years he spent in the Marine Corps were the most formative, important and enjoyable years of his life.
"It really helped form me and make me who I am today," he said.