America is beautiful. That, briefly, was the message that threaded through the former hostages' first formal meeting with the American press. Forty-one of the 52 ex-hostages attended the slightly more than 45-minutes of questions and answers at cavernous Eisenhower Hall here at the US Military Academy high on the bluffs above the Hudson River.
They told of their hopes, uncertainties, prayers, and out-and-out fears during 444 days in Iranian captivity. Some praised former President Carter's efforts to gain their release. Generally, they refused to cite specific instances of physical abuse by the Iranian militants even though this was a persistent question from reporters.
The overall tone seemed upbeat. A few instances of humor cascading into laughter found their way into the conference. Some of the returnees spoke of the bonds of unity that had developed between them over the long hard days -- bonds fashioned by mutual assistance, strengthened faith, and, of course, mutual suffering.
Speaker after speaker also played down the emotional problems that reportedly were daunting some of the freed Americans and said that any such problems that do exist would be dealt with by a return to normalcy in their lives.
L. Bruce Laingen, former charge d'affaires of the US Embassy in Tehran, spoke of the unswerving support the hostages received from families, friends, and the nation. "Behind those curtains over there sit our families, some of the most beautiful people in the world," he said. "They have demonstrated a nobility of courage we will never forget."
In speaking of their welcome home, Laingen said "We are grateful for that demonstration of small-town America. We saw that and we knew we were home," Laingen said. "I want to tell all of America we saw you.It is evidence that America is strong, that America has heart."
Laingen continued "Never has a smaller group owed so much to so many."
In one of the most touching moments of the entire cold, gray morning here, the ex- hostages were asked if they felt like heroes. "No, I didn't," declared ex-hostage Bruce W. German. But, Mr. German added, he did feel that and all the others had contributed to "the unity of the nation."
Young marine Sgt. William Gallegos refused with equal alacrity to describe exactly how he was mistreated by his Iranian captors, although he did allude to the fact that mistreatment occurred.
Kathryn L. Koob, who held her own impromptu religious services, told of one joyful time during the Christmas season when she sang a family Christmas carol. Her family and the world later heard her when her captors released a videotape. "Christmas to us in our family," she told those assembled here, "is centered around the Christ child and our worship service."
She maintained under stiff questioning that she was never discriminated against for her religous views, a statement that contradicts some of the reports that drifted out of Iran earlier.
An immaculately dressed William J. Daugherty said that his cell was small. He also said he was not physically abused. Mr. Daugherty's comments about the size of his cell prompted another former hostage to remark that "you had a big one," a comment attended by a burst of laughter in the hall.
Some of the responses may have been tempered by Laingen's opening statement that definitive answers to many questions could not come until certain "policy questions" had been decided and after the ex-hos tages had had sufficient "time to reflect."