Retired Air Force Col. Tom Schaefer on Nov. 7 shows the medal awarded to him by the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home. Schaefer was one of 53 hostages who spent 444 days in captivity as a in Iran, ending in 1981. (Charlie Leight / The Arizona Republic via AP)
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PHOENIX — It's understandable that Retired Air Force Col. Tom Schaefer has strong opinions about Iran's nuclear program.
It was a little more than 33 years ago this week that the Scottsdale resident was taken hostage with 52 Americans at the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held for 444 days by militant Iranian activists.
The Israelis, with U.S. support, should strike to halt Iran's nuclear development, Schaefer said.
"It has to be done," he said. "We cannot allow those crazies to have nuclear weapons."
Schaefer, 82, was a military attaché in Iran and the top military officer taken hostage Nov.4, 1979, during the Iranian revolution.
An Arizona resident since 1989, Schaefer and his wife, Anita, moved to the Maravilla Scottsdale retirement community this summer.
Schaefer was scheduled to give a private Veterans Day talk at Maravilla about his experiences in Iran. He has had a public-speaking career since retiring from the Air Force in 1992 after 29 years of service and 6,000 hours of flight time.
In an interview with The Republic, Schaefer talked about his time in captivity, the Sept.11 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"I think it was a tremendous screw-up by the administration," Schaefer said of the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attacks, adding that early messages from the embassy requesting increased security were ignored.
Schaefer said in 2005 that he did not recognize Iranian President Ahmadinejad as one of his captors, but other hostages insist he was. Iranian officials have denied it. Schaefer now believes Ahmadinejad was among the so-called students who held the Americans hostages.
"He was in on it," Schaefer said of Ahmadinejad. "He lies about it now."
Despite pointed comments about present-day Iran, Schaefer seems to have put his time in captivity into perspective.
The experience taught him "that there is never a challenge you can't meet."
Schaefer said it's a message he has shared in his speeches to a half-million Americans, many of them high school students, over the past two decades.
The former officer spent 150 days in solitary confinement.
Schaefer said he endured two mock firing squads and was held in a 40-degree room with just a thin blanket day after day.
"They were trying to break me down physically," he said.
"My bottom line was that my faith in God and belief in the power of prayer got me through it all."
That and a sense of humor. Schaefer said he "mooned" his captors — exposing his bare backside — on a video camera used to watch the hostages.
He used his time to exercise, learn yoga and walk for miles. The former officer said he read everything he could get his hands on — history, philosophy, textbooks that he used to teach himself German.
That paid off when he talked a guard into bringing him a copy of Der Spiegel, a German magazine that had a six-page story on the failed American rescue mission in April 1980.
Schaefer said he kept a diary in his Bible, poking pin holes in the pages to keep track of his exercise regimen, when he had a shower and how his day had gone.
It was a good day if he had a meal, a warm room and a book to read.
Schaefer credits President Carter for his handling of the hostage crisis.
Upon his return to the United States, Schaefer and his wife visited the Carters on Father's Day in 1981. Schaefer said the former president showed him a letter he sent to Iran's Ayottalah Khomeni warning that he would exercise his military options if any of the hostages were put on trial and executed.
"That was the reason we were never put on trial," Schaefer said. "As far as I'm concerned, he saved my life."
He said that Carter and Schaefer's wife became friends at the president's briefings for the hostage families.
The hostages were released on Jan.20, 1981, minutes after President Reagan was sworn into office.
News reports at the time said that Carter told Anita Schaefer at Andrews Air Force Base that "Tom is in the air" on his way home just before the former president boarded his plane for his trip home to Plains, Ga.
After a week at a German air base, Schaefer and the rest of the hostages returned to the United States aboard a plane dubbed Freedom One.
As they approached American air space, Schaefer said he pulled rank and took over piloting the aircraft. Air-traffic controllers cued up "God Bless America" and it played over Freedom One's intercom as it arrived over the East Coast.
"That meant more to me than any other flying experience," Schaefer said. "It was the last time I flew an airplane."