James O’ Neal Hughes was a staff sergeant for the Defense Intelligence Agency when he and 64 other Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979. He was formally awarded the Defense Department’s Prisoner of War Medal (POW) at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colo. this past August – 32 years later.
Now a retired master sergeant from the U.S. Air Force, Hughes was 30 years-old when Iranians seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. He was among 13 African-American or female hostages released after about two weeks because their captors claimed they felt sympathetic for suppressed minorities.
Although he was free, Hughes admitted he was not happy with the reason for being let go. “The attempt by the Iranians to divide along gender and racial lines did not set well with me,” he said. “Part of my mental health treatment was dealing with the guilt of leaving others behind.”
Hughes also says the hostage takeover proved to be more than what he initially imagined. “I thought it would be over in a few hours and that they just wanted to take over the Embassy to make a statement,” said Hughes. “After being searched, tied up and blind folded, and marched out of the Embassy, I understood that it was something different. During long periods of isolation I would have thoughts of never seeing my family again and that I would die blindfolded and tied to a chair.”
James O’Neal Hughes at his award ceremony
The Pentagon authorized the medal for Hughes in 2003. It was delivered in 2011. The reason for the delay isn’t clear. Despite the long wait, the ordeal did not taint Hughes’ dedication to serve the Nation and he stayed the course until retirement. “I did not try to get any recognition nor a medal,” Hughes said. “It [the capture] happened to me and that’s just the way it was. I moved on and continued to serve my country.”
Although Hughes received his POW medal late he says the recognition has helped him. “It is kind of therapeutic for me and a moment of healing, he said. “I have been dealing with this a long time.”
Hughes, a native of New Orleans, La., currently works as a staff assistant at Fort Logan National Cemetery. Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, Steve L. Muro addressed Hughes bravery in a formal letter stating, “When we raise our right hand and swear an oath to the United States, we don’t know exactly where that journey will take us, or what will be asked of us. Few of us have our courage and devotion to duty tested the way you did, as a hostage in a hostile foreign land—but every one of us would hope to conduct ourselves just as honorably under the same circumstances.
While others would have quit the military following such a harrowing ordeal, you continued to wear the uniform, retiring from the Air Force at the rank of master sergeant. Still today, as a staff assistant at Fort Logan, you serve the Nation by caring for your fellow Veterans and their families in their hour of need. We are grateful for your safe return 33 years ago, and for your many years of dedicated service and sacrifice.”
Richelle Taylor is a public affairs specialist with the National Cemetery Administration, and an editor of NCA News an internal newsletter.