Since his hostage years, Terry Anderson relishes 'very, very good life'

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Story highlights

  • AP journalist Terry Anderson was held hostage for 7 years by Hezbollah militants in Lebanon
  • Since his 1991 release, Anderson has founded charities, taught journalism and run businesses
  • "I still think I'm the same person," he says about his time in captivity

(CNN)Terry Anderson is free.

Free to move from state to state, as he does every year or so. Free to fall in love, marry, get divorced. Free to own businesses, see them fail, then move on. Free to dive into horse training and scuba diving. Free to make friends and catch up with old ones. Free to recognize mistakes and do good things. Free to be himself -- vibrant, passionate and busy, even at 68 years old.
After so much time chained to a wall, there's no holding him back from enjoying his new life.
    "I have a life that's filled with interests. I don't often get bored," he said. "What do I have time to be bored about?"
    Over 24 years since being released in Lebanon by Hezbollah militants -- who held him nearly seven years, making him then the longest-held American hostage -- Anderson doesn't walk as briskly as he once did. His time reporting on four continents is now a memory. And he has chosen life on a rural Virginia horse farm over an urban war zone.
    He'll likely never fully escape his past. It's not just acknowledging his obituary will be headlined, "Former hostage Terry Anderson..." It's coming to grips with what happened to him.
    Anderson once convinced himself, and others, he was fine. He'd say, "I'm a Christian, and I'm ready to forgive."
    "I discovered that it's not that easy."
    His anger can flare, like when he saw the head of the guards who held him on TV and yelled, "You son of a bitch! You stole seven years of my life." But Anderson insists such moments are rare, that he doesn't think about his captivity often.
    "I've found primarily that I didn't want to be angry," he said. "I didn't want to hate anybody.
    "I had my life back. And it was turning into a very, very good life."
    Terry Anderson says that it took him years to understand the psychological toll of his time in captivity.

    Seeing the world as a Marine, reporter

    He began his life in Ohio, moving at age 6 to a chicken farm in upstate New York. After graduating high school, Anderson joined the Marines and went overseas almost immediately -- first to Japan, then Vietnam.
    That experience, as a combat correspondent, shaped Anderson before he left the military at age 23 as a staff sergeant.
    "I had commanded men. I had experienced war. I had been shot at and shot back," he said. "I wasn't a kid anymore."
    He'd also discovered his calling: journalism.
    Heading to Iowa for Marine recruiting duty, Anderson enrolled and graduated from Iowa State University, took a job at a radio station and worked briefly for the Associated Press. His next stop was as news editor of a Michigan newspaper.
    Anderson returned to the AP, reporting out of Kentucky, Tokyo, South Africa and ultimately Lebanon, after he volunteered to go there in 1982 following Israel's invasion as the news agency's chief Middle East correspondent.
    He characterized himself as "an overachiever ... in a highly competitive field that I was good at." He said this drive cost him his first marriage, and "a lot of people didn't like me." Still, there's no doubt he thrived. Crisis reporting fit his personality and he felt strongly about telling the world what was happening and why it mattered.
    "I believed in what I was doing," Anderson said. "And I still do."

    Into the 'Den of Lions'

    By 1983, his first wife and then-young daughter had evacuated Lebanon due to the sprawling war there. So had other foreign nationals, including many journalists.
    But Anderson stuck it out. He even found love again in a Lebanese woman named Madeleine Bassil. She was six months pregnant with their child when he kissed her goodbye the morning of Saturday, March 16, and headed out to play tennis. Amid all the dangers he chronicled daily, Anderson persuaded himself he was safe.
    Anderson's captors periodically released pictures of him, images that proved little comfort to family and friends he'd left behind.
    "That's what got me kidnapped. Arrogance."
    Armed men grabbed him on a Beirut street, threw him into the trunk of a car and whisked him away.
    His autobiography calls his next home the "Den of Lions." In fact, it was many dens as he was moved regularly, presumably around Lebanon. Each place, he had shackles, chains, and blindfolds so he couldn't look his captors in the eye.
    "Some of them were really bad, some of them were evil." Anderson said of his guards. "Some ... were psychopathic."
    He'd get sustenance, little privacy and no company beyond fellow hostages who occasionally roomed with him. The hardest part, he discovered, was the roughly one and half years cumulatively he spent alone.
    "Solitary was the hardest thing," recalled Anderson. "I discovered that I needed people."
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    On the outside, the man whose AP byline had graced newspapers worldwide became a story himself. His sister, the late Peggy Say, became his most vocal advocate. Bassil tried to find peace after giving birth to daughter Sulome. Government officials waged fruitless attempts to free him and others, the most high-profile example being the Iran-Contra affair.
    One by one, his fellow captives went home -- leaving Anderson alone.
    Until December 4, 1991. He was taken from his holding room shortly after 6 a.m., handed to Syrian officers, and driven to Damascus.
    "What kept me going on?" he said immediately after tasting freedom. "Well, my companions. I was lucky enough to have other people with me most of the time. My faith. Stubbornness, I guess.
    "And you just do what you have to do. You wake up every day, and you summon up the energy from somewhere, even when you think you haven't got it, and you get through the day. And you do it, day after day after day."
    Until his life began anew.
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    Teacher, businessman and advocate

    He met his daughter Sulome for the first time and reconnected with Bassil, with whom he'd spent far more time apart than together before they married. Declining to go overseas again for the AP, Anderson made good money giving speeches. He also got millions in frozen Iranian assets after a U.S. court found Tehran culpable of funding kidnappings and other acts.
    The money was satisfying, but it didn't last. Anderson invested in a number of businesses, from the Blue Gator blues club and Cajun restaurant in Athens, Ohio, to a gourmet restaurant on the Caribbean isle of St. Thomas, to an Ohio horse ranch, that faltered. He reportedly filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
    Still, just as he did in captivity, Anderson kept going.
    Anderson was celebrated upon his release, fame that he used to make paid speeches and lend support to various causes.
    He learned through scuba diving and horse training "to be in the present [and] open yourself up." He ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Ohio's state Senate. He opened his home to rescue dogs, like Harmony and Wendy, who scampered excitedly around his modest Gainesville apartment before following him north to Virginia.
    And Anderson devoted time and energy to causes close to his heart, like the Father Lawrence Jenco Foundation, named after a Catholic priest and fellow hostage, to support faith-based charity work in Appalachia.
    His biggest such endeavor is the Vietnam Children's Fund, which he launched with actress Kieu Chinh. Thanks to the generosity of many, like FedEx founder Fred Smith, VCF is now building its 50th school in Vietnam.
    "It's been a true joy to do that," Anderson said, noting the fund's many benefits both to the local people and American vets, like himself, involved in it. "... It has had side effects we hadn't expected."
    Anderson has stayed connected with journalism, too. Honorary chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, he has spoken out to help those held or otherwise harmed for trying to report the truth. He's also found a second successful career as a journalism professor, mentoring university students at Columbia, Ohio, Kentucky, Syracuse and, most recently, Florida.
    "He brings this incredible amount of experience," Nate Phillips, a University of Florida junior said after a international journalism class in Gainesville. "I'm just genuinely excited to come to class every day. You can tell that he really cares."
    Through it all, Anderson talks easily, smiles easily, moves on easily, it seemed. Some may not realize he'd been a hostage, much less one scarred by his experience. Anderson admits he's even fooled himself.
    "I was damaged much more than I knew at the time," he said. "My problem was I sounded good. And I convinced myself and everybody else that I wasn't damaged.
    "And it wasn't for years that I understood what happened to me."

    Healing

    This coming-to-grips process included trips to Lebanon, often with aspiring international journalism students. It's hard to get more of a stark reminder of the dangers of this job than to visit a place where your professor was held hostage, but Anderson says his students loved these trips.
    He did, too, for different reasons.
    "Somehow, this trip is part of our healing," Anderson told CNN after his first voyage back, nearly five years after his release. "[It helps me] free myself from some restrictions ... It was a symbol [for the Lebanese], too."
    The old journalist came out when he sat down with the secretary-general of Hezbollah, the group that held him. The United States and the European Union, among others, have designated it a terrorist organization.
    "I asked him in the interview, what did you think about the kidnapping? Was it wrong? Was it a mistake?" Anderson said. "And he just said, 'No, it was just something that happened in the war."
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    As someone who covered a violence-ravaged Lebanon, Anderson knows he's not the only who suffered. Thousands of Lebanese died. So did foreigners, some of whom also were taken hostage.
    Still, that doesn't take away from Anderson's pain. He didn't get to see one daughter be born and another grow up. He didn't get to be with Bassil, his new love, or talk with close friends and relatives. He wasn't afforded many basics of human dignity -- to speak his mind, to pursue his passions, to be himself.
    "There is nothing you can do," Anderson told CNN once about his capture. "You're just a piece of meat that somebody is going to bargain with."
    Has he gotten over it? Anderson can't say for sure. He suspects most of his captors "aren't even sorry. But it doesn't matter. I need to concentrate on me, on what I feel."
    "Are you going to be one of those who hugs their [grudge] -- nice grudge, nice grudge, grow up and be a big grudge? Or are you just going to let it go?" he says now. "Because you can't change it."

    'I'm just me'

    But how did being a hostage change Terry Anderson?
    He survived those years by being stubborn, "a word that [still] comes up a lot when people are describing me." He made it thanks to others, staying close now with many of them though "we almost never talk about" their time in captivity. He's no longer a journalist but -- despite questioning while in captivity whether being one "had been a good thing" -- still feels strongly about the craft.
    Through it all, Anderson says, "I still think I'm the same person. I still care about the same things I cared about. I still have the same values.
    "... I like to think I've learned something in the way of patience and arrogance. It didn't change what I believe. But it did help me understand what I really believe."
    He believes in trying to do good in a tough world, as illustrated by his charitable work in Vietnam and with imperiled journalists. He still speaks his mind, whether it's about Israel, Iraq or ISIS, who he calls "pure terrorists (and) a different kind of evil" than the militants who held him." He has not lost his big personality, joking you should ask his ex-wives "am I jerk because I'm a jerk or because I was a hostage?
    "... I don't know. I'm just me."
    The passing years have allowed him to get closer with Gabrielle, his daughter from his first marriage and now a lawyer in Tokyo, and Sulome, born three months after he was snatched in Beirut. After studying drama at New York University's Tisch School, Sulome Anderson has become a "damn good journalist" who has written for VICE, the Atlantic and Foreign Policy, according to her proud father.
    After marrying and divorcing Madeleine Bassil (then marrying and divorcing another woman), Anderson travels and talks regularly with his second wife. He's made reconnecting with his "decreasing number of old friends" a priority, moving in December from Florida to a small horse farm in rural Unionville, Virginia, primarily because of his ties there.
    "I find the older I get ... I value my old friends and my family [more]," Anderson said. "It's not that I don't like to make new friends. I make them all over the place. ... But I find that I value friends that I've had for 25 or 30 years, or 40 years in some cases. ... They're important to me."
    These friends know the real Terry Anderson, a man with a sharp wit, insatiable curiosity and deep-rooted passions. And if the rest of the world identifies him forever as a hostage, Anderson says, "That's OK, it really is. I have used that [recognition] to do a lot of good things."
    As far as he knows, none of his guards in Lebanon got punished. Anderson speculated that, on the contrary, some were regarded as heroes.
    But he bets "that I've enjoyed the last 20 years more than they have." His life has been filled with ups and some downs, but through it all, Terry Anderson has relished his liberty and the opportunity to be himself.
    "I don't think, by any means, I am a finished product. But I am 68. And as I told my ex-wife, it is unlikely I'm going to change very much," he said.
    "I am pretty much who I am right now. If I live another 10, 15 years, God willing, I'll still be who I am."