17 years of war on terrorism

Parents: A Maryland couple whose son was killed in 1985 has learned that the

pursuit of terrorists can be long and frustrating.

April 21, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Dick Stethem keeps a fat binder at home in Port Tobacco, stuffed with articles, reports and notes about a man he has never met. Imad Mugniyah is the terrorist who authorities say plotted the hijacking of a jetliner that resulted in the torture and murder of his son.

Every few weeks for 17 years, Pat Stethem has been calling the FBI's Washington field office to check on the progress of the hunt for Mugniyah and two henchmen. She keeps the names of the FBI agents assigned to the case in her address book, crossing off those who get transferred, penciling in the new ones. Some have become family friends.

For the Stethems, the war on terrorism began on the unspeakable day in June 1985 when they got word that Robbie, a 23-year-old Navy diver and "most fun-loving" of their four children, was the man who had been shot and thrown from a hijacked airliner parked at Beirut International Airport.

Since Sept. 11, their quest has felt less lonely and quixotic. But they say they learned long ago that the vows government officials make before television cameras at moments of crisis are not to be taken literally.

"You hear them say, `We're going to get the terrorists,' " Dick Stethem says. "And here we've known who these terrorists are for 20 years and haven't done a thing. After a while, you don't want to hear it."

The latest phase of the Stethems' war ended in victory Friday, when a federal judge in Washington ruled in their favor in the family's lawsuit against Iran, sponsor of the Hezbollah terrorists who killed their son.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson awarded them and their three surviving children $21.4 million in compensatory damages. Under an anti-terrorism law passed in 2000, that amount will be advanced to them from the U.S. Treasury, with the government then having the right to recoup the sum from frozen Iranian assets.

Jackson also added another $300 million in punitive damages. The Stethems know they are unlikely to collect that money from Iran, which refused to respond to the lawsuit. But they like to think of it as casting a shadow over the country's future attempts to improve political and economic relations with the West.

For a couple in their mid-60s who grew up working-poor and have five grandchildren (plus twins on the way), the money will be welcome. They have no plans, beyond building a retirement home. But as they talked about their son yesterday in a park in Anne Arundel County, it was clear their war was far from over.

It began during that week in 1985 when they felt like hostages in their own Waldorf home, as television trucks lined the street. They had to remove a section of back fence to sneak in and out through a neighbor's yard and avoid the cameras. (The experience left them wary of the news media; when they heard about the verdict Friday, fearing another onslaught, they changed their phone number and left their home in Port Tobacco.)

"You're in a such a daze," Dick Stethem says, remembering the week of the hijacking. "You're completely consumed -- you don't eat; you don't sleep."

"You want to die yourself," Pat Stethem adds, her tone merely factual. "You don't want to answer anyone's questions."

Since then, they say, they have rarely missed a Sunday visit to place fresh flowers at Robbie's grave in Section 59 of Arlington National Cemetery, originally dedicated to victims of terrorism. Nearby are the graves of 21 U.S. military personnel killed in the bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks in 1983 and of William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Lebanon who was tortured to death in 1985.

Not far away down the hill, the Stethems say, are the graves of those killed by the plane that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Among those buried last fall was another 23-year-old sailor from Waldorf, whose parents the Stethems visited then to offer condolences and comfort.

Their pilgrimages to their son's grave were interrupted in 1988 and 1989, when they traveled to Germany and sat through the months-long trial of the only man to face charges in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847. Mohammed Ali Hamadi was sentenced to life in prison. Dick Stethem filled 25 legal pads with notes.

Every 18 months since 1995, they have flown to San Diego to attend change-of-command ceremonies for the USS Stethem, a guided-missile destroyer named for their son. On countless other occasions, they have attended events to honor the memory of Robert Dean Stethem, whose name has been given to two parks in Waldorf, a church building in Annandale, Va., a Navy barracks in Virginia Beach, a scholarship at Robbie's high school, a U.S. military encampment during the Persian Gulf war, even a golf tournament.

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