Mike and Lucretia Roman, leaving for Iran, April 1967 (family photos)
Sniper and Family Man: Zehbel The Clever One
Shahbanu Farah Pahlavi, Jackie Kennedy, Mohammed Reza Shah Palavi, President Kennedy
A man does what he must, to support his family. In my case, my family and I spent ten years in Iran under the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi. My everyday life was lived on the edge of a volcano, with dead bodies in the streets, murder, kidnapping and robbery as ordinary events. In the midst of this, my wife and I raised seven children, doing our best to give them an ordinary American middle-class lifestyle. While I was flying all over Iran in a C-130, they were reading Tiger Beat and cheerleading for their football team at the Teheran American School.
I worked for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after I got out of the Army, in the early 60’s. In August of 1966 I accepted an assignment to set up navigational equipment in Pakistan. It was supposed to take me six months. I completed the project in half the time, and established a reputation as a man who could get things done. Next, the FAA gave me an 18 month assignment to Iran. It lasted ten years.
In Vahdati the Iranians called me Danger Man, because I looked dangerous. I wore a rifle over my shoulder, a pith helmet, and old clothes. People noticed I always carried a gun. In my line of work, I needed one. I didn’t smile much.
My wife and children had no idea, for the most part, what I went through at work. There were signs that this wasn’t an ordinary American family — my daughters can make bullets and reload weapons in the time it takes you to blink. As tensions grew in Iran, the children carefully checked under my jeep for bombs before I headed off to work each morning. From April 1967 to December 1971, I worked for the FAA/USAF in Iran. In January 1972, with permission from the United States government, I was hired by the Imperial Iranian Air Force (IIAF), approving equipment contracts and setting up radar equipment at every military air base in Iran. I was the only man in the country who knew where a plane could fly through, to evade radar signals. Without my signature, a contract was DOA. Most Iranians were quite insistent that their contracts be approved, regardless of the quality of their equipment. I was equally insistent in refusing substandard equipment and poorly-trained technicians. There were many attempts on my life, right up to the moment I stepped on a plane for home in December 1976.
The IIAF called me Zehbel, The Clever One, because they thought I could do anything. But by 1976, terrorist activity was on the rise. I sent my four older children home first. Iranian authorities didn’t want to let the three younger ones go — they were considered Iranian citizens — but influential friends got us the paperwork we needed to take our children back to the States. Getting myself out proved to be my toughest assignment.
A few years later, just before the Revolution, I was asked to return, and offered a handsome salary. I considered it, but then the American Embassy was overrun and the hostages were taken. It was too dangerous. We loved our life in Iran, the beautiful country, the kind, generous people. Now, we could never return.
Zehbel: The Clever One is the story of our years in the beloved country, Iran. In sharing this tale, names have been changed or omitted to protect those dear friends we left behind.