Father Lawrence M. Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest who spent 19 months as a captive of extremists in Lebanon, told a group of veterans and former prisoners of war in Long Beach on Tuesday that he vowed never to forget those who remained behind.
"I made a covenant with Terry Anderson that he (and the others) wouldn't be forgotten," Jenco, speaking softly, told the crowd of more than 200 gathered in the chapel of the Long Beach Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "It's a covenant that we (all must) make."
In an interview after his talk, Jenco, 56, said that while he sees some cause for optimism in recent statements by certain Arab leaders that they are ready to resolve the hostage crisis, he remains skeptical.
Jenco, the former program director of Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, was abducted by Shiite Muslims in 1985. After spending six months chained in solitary confinement, he was moved to seven locations where he was imprisoned with several other American hostages, including Anderson, before being released on July 26, 1986.
Now a campus minister at USC, Jenco was at the Long Beach veterans hospital to help mark National POW/MIA Recognition Day, set for Sept. 20, by detailing his personal reaction to captivity.
The key to his survival, he said, was "God's word, God's table and a marvelous sense of humor."
"The first thing you do is sing," he told the audience, which included about 50 ex-POWs, mostly from World War II. "Then you cry. And finally you remain silent."
During an emotional 30-minute talk that alternated between humor and pathos, Jenco recalled some of the details of his captivity. While being taken from place to place, he said, he was taped from head to foot like a mummy and kept in the trunk of a car. Often, he said, it was difficult to breathe. And much of the time, he said, he was kept blindfolded to prevent him from identifying his captors.
But there were moments of redemption as well, Jenco said. As he was about to be released, someone secretly shoved a miniature cross into his hands. And about the same time, he said, one of the most brutal guards whispered into his ear, asking for forgiveness. "It was a moment of tremendous reconciliation when enemies became brothers," the priest recalled.
Former POWs in the audience, while asserting that Jenco's experience was somewhat different from their own, said that they could nonetheless relate to much of what he said.
"I think he had it a hell of a lot rougher than we did," said William Sniezko, 74, who spent 3 1/2 years as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II.
Still, said Mike Brown, 73, who was a captive of the Germans from 1944 to 1945, there is much that political and war prisoners of all eras have in common.
"I was really touched," he said of Jenco's talk. "I could understand it. As bad as things are, you just can't throw in the towel. You can never give up."