Pilot, Jesse Jackson mark anniversary of pilot’s release from Syrian captors

By Kate Thayer, Tribune reporter

A few weeks after his plane was shot down near Syria in late 1983, captured U.S. Navy pilot Lt. Robert Goodman recalls hearing of efforts back home to coordinate his release.

His captor explained to him that “Jackson” was meeting with Syrian leaders, Goodman told an audience during an event Saturday at the Rainbow Push Coalition headquarters in Hyde Park.

“Jackson? Jesse? Michael? Reggie?” Goodman recalled saying. “I was gratified to know people were working on my release.”

For the first time since his successful homecoming, Goodman came face-to-face with Jackson — the Rev. Jesse Jackson — to help commemorate the 30th anniversary of Goodman’s return home. Jackson helped negotiate Goodman’s Jan. 3, 1984 release from a Syrian military compound after meetings with then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

Goodman, 57, visited Chicago to participate in a Rainbow Push forum with Jackson, discussing the events surrounding the capture and homecoming in front of an audience of about 50 people.

Goodman, now a retired commander, said he still has clear memories of his plane getting shot down on Dec. 4, 1983 in the mountains near Beirut, Lebanon. His partner in the mission – Navy pilot Lt. Mark Lange – died from injuries sustained in the crash and Goodman was captured by Syrian soldiers.

Although he was beaten once, Goodman said for the most part his captors treated him well, even allowing him a Christmas Day ham dinner with two beers. Goodman said he spent the first several days in captivity in an 8-foot-by-8-foot, concrete basement room in the Damascus compound. He was later taken upstairs to a bedroom and held there, where he was often interrogated about his mission.

“You have to be very careful … very mindful of the things that you say and the things that you do,” Goodman said.

A few days after Christmas, Goodman learned Jesse Jackson was trying to negotiate his release, he said.

Back in the U.S., Jackson – who was running for president – received a call from Goodman’s mother in a plea for help, Jackson said. Although there was criticism that Jackson’s efforts could interfere with official U.S. efforts to bring Goodman home, Jackson decided to form his own delegation and met with al-Assad three times, eventually leading to an agreed release, he said.

Goodman, Jackson and the delegation were flown back to the U.S. on Jan. 4, 1984 to meet with then-President Ronald Reagan, the two men said Saturday. Jackson said he asked Reagan to speak to al-Assad and thank him for Goodman’s release, which could improve the relationship between the two countries. Reagan later wrote a note to al-Assad, according to published reports from the time.

“Talking matters,” Jackson said. “No talking never works.”

Goodman said he wanted to keep his opinions to himself on whether or not the U.S. should get involved in the current unrest in Syria but said military force should be used cautiously.

In the 30 years since the ordeal, Goodman has remained out of the public eye, continuing on with his military career. He said he flew in Desert Storm and retired from the Navy in 1995. He said he now works as a consultant in Colorado Springs, where he’s lived since 1992.

He said he doesn’t think a lot about his time in captivity, and typically does not mark the anniversary. “When I look back I don’t feel I did anything special or unique.”

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