Ex-hostage's homecoming marked by joy, gentle words for Iraqis

December 10, 1990|By Linda S. Wallace | Linda S. Wallace,Knight-Ridder News Service

HOUSTON -- In a hangar where tired eyes wept joyful tears, Charles Keegan of Des Moines, Iowa -- who spent nearly three months as a hostage in Iraq -- got to be somebody's dad again yesterday.

As his family gathered beside him, Mr. Keegan, a chief investment analyst for an investment company in Kuwait, caught up on news and hugged the children who had worried about him since Iraqi soldiers knocked on his door in Kuwait and took him hostage Sept. 19.

The Iraqis took Mr. Keegan briefly to a hotel, then to somewhere near Baghdad, where he became a human shield, held with five other hostages -- one French, two Japanese and two British -- in a factory near a site where shell casings were made.

Early yesterday morning, at Ellington Field in Houston, Mr. Keegan, his daughter, Peggy, and his son-in-law, Tom Van Baale, walked off a plane that carried him, 20 other U.S. hostages and members of some of their families to freedom.

The flight was arranged by Houston oil magnate Oscar Wyatt and former Texas Gov. John B. Connally.

Peggy Keegan and Mr. Baale were among the relatives who had traveled to the Middle East to try to win release of Mr. Keegan and others. Those who returned on the plane to Houston with them were the first Americans to leave Iraq since President Saddam Hussein declared all hostages free Thursday.

It was still dark when Mr. Keegan arrived in Houston, and he was tired and excited as he surveyed the scene in the hangar: family members wearing yellow ribbons, a swarm of reporters and photographers, and smiling airfield staff members.

The gaiety was a stark contrast to Mr. Keegan's simple, empty life of the past few months, which revolved around twice-daily exercise routines, afternoons of reading and nights of limited Western television -- including such programs as "Charlie's Angels."

There was neither bitterness nor anger when Mr. Keegan wearing a black T-shirt, freshly creased pants and wire-framed glasses, spoke gently of the people who had held him against his will. In fact, he said, he left with a little more understanding of the Iraqis, who he said are "nice enough people."

"My greatest fear happened before I was picked up," said the 57-year-old investment executive. "There were people who called to warn me about the Iraqis, and that was more fearful than what actually happened to me later.

"Most Iraqis are like anybody else. They want to live a simple, easy life. . . . It happens in their country they don't get the freedoms that we have. They seem down to earth and, for the most part, nice enough people.

"The person that drove me in the day I left, he had been with me all the time. One of the first days, he could see I was a little downcast, and he said [in Arabic], 'God will provide.'

"When I left, we did the Arabic embrace and so forth. . . . Most of them, I think, try to be good people and were not all that political, but they obviously had to do what their orders were."

Mr. Keegan said his family's support-- along with letters and calls from strangers -- sustained him when his emotional endurance was tested.

"For the most part, I did pretty well," he said. "I had a few blowups here and there. . . . I can remember one day in October walking around the yard where we went to exercise in. . . . [We were] feeling sort of sorry for ourselves. I said I know there are people back there who care. I said I bet there are a hundred people."

When Mr. Keegan finally was able to communicate with his family in November, he said, they told him that the support was far greater than he had hoped, and the news lifted his spirits.

"It has been a real emotional experience to know that many people care," he said.

Mr. Keegan said the hostages slept in rooms with simple beds and shared a common area with a sofa, a television and a chair. Recently, they had been provided with a videotape player and tapes.

At first, their Iraqi guards tried to convince them, through translators, that Iraq was justified in invading Kuwait Aug. 2, but they stopped after both sides came to consider the discussion pointless.

"We finally stopped having political discussions," Mr. Keegan said. "It didn't make sense. They obviously were going to do BTC what they had to do. We were not going to agree with that element."

Mr. Keegan said he has no plans beyond visiting his family and playing with his grandchildren. He does not plan to return overseas to work.

"I may go have a pizza or something," he said.

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