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Desire to Alter Life Style Led Jacobsen to Beirut

November 03, 1986|From Times Wire Services

When David P. Jacobsen took the job as director of the American University Hospital in Beirut in 1984, he hoped that he, like the 450-bed hospital he ran, would be exempt from the violence and terror of Beirut's urban war zone.

"I don't think he felt there was a great personal risk," said his son, Eric Jacobsen. "Before he took the job, he met with several leaders of the various militias, and they said they would do what they could to guarantee his safety.

"He was a generous man who cared about helping people," Jacobsen said. "He was not somebody who would take unnecessary risks."

But the 55-year-old hospital administrator's "exemption" ran out May 28, 1985, when six men kidnaped him as he crossed the street between his apartment and office.

He was freed Sunday in Beirut after 17 months in captivity.

The streets of Beirut were far from Southern California, where Jacobsen spent most of his life.

Jacobsen was born May 5, 1931, in South Pasadena. A UCLA graduate, he had lived in Huntington Beach since 1964 and had been a hospital administrator in Southern California for 25 years when, in 1982, divorced and with his three children grown, he decided to try life overseas and took a job as administrator of the Saudi Arabian security forces hospital in Riyadh.

Two years later, he became head of the American University Hospital, one of the largest medical facilities in the Middle East.

"He told us he really felt the job was the most satisfying he had ever had," Eric Jacobsen said.

But Jacobsen was aware of the risks faced by Americans in Beirut. Four Americans already had been kidnaped by terrorists.

"In his first few letters, he said he felt safe," said Eric Jacobsen. "But on his last trip home, two weeks before his abduction, he was a lot more concerned."

Jacobsen said some of his Beirut staff members wept when he took his U.S. vacation, fearing he would not return, but he reassured them he would be back.

"He said he really felt he had no choice but to return, having seen what kind of suffering was going on there," his son said. "Face it, hospital administration in Southern California was more of turning a profit, but in Beirut, the focus was on saving human lives."

Jacobsen stayed close to the hospital, a neutral zone that treats the wounded of all the warring factions in the torn city. His apartment was across the road from the medical complex where he worked seven days a week.

"He said he was safe everywhere except when he crossed the road," his son said. "Unfortunately, that's where he was kidnaped."

Jacobsen sent letters home after his abduction, writing words his son believes were dictated by the kidnapers.

And, on a videotape brought from Lebanon by freed fellow hostage Lawrence M. Jenco, Jacobsen said, "There are days when I believe that the government does not care about me."

Eric Jacobsen said the family received its best news from the Rev. Benjamin Weir, a Presbyterian minister who was released by the kidnapers in September, 1985.

Weir told Eric Jacobsen his father was in good spirits, playing a game to keep his hopes up. Each week, the hostage told himself he was to be released on Sunday.

"He's a very goal-oriented individual," said his son. "It would be his way of getting through this. When each Sunday came, he would tell the other men it was a miscalculation and that it's going to be next Sunday. It was just his way of coping with it, of feeling that this is going to end."

But by last September, Jacobsen appeared drawn and haggard in photos released by Islamic Jihad.

"Our bodies are sick and our psychological state is bad," read one letter he purportedly wrote.

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