He was, said a former neighbor, “just the kind of kid you’d like to have as your own son”—an all-American boy, raised in a leafy Maryland suburb, a straight arrow, proud of his family, his profession, his country. Last week, as a military band played This is My Country on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, eight ceremonial guards carried the flag-draped coffin of navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, 23, from a U.S. Air Force C-141—the sole casualty of last week’s hostage drama in Beirut. With tears streaming down the faces of Stethem’s parents, sister and two brothers, U.S. Vice-President George Bush declared that the young petty officer was a victim “of a cruelty that knows no boundaries and a barbarism that selects the blameless for punishment.”
Brave: Holding the rank of Steelworker 2d Class, Stethem had been assigned to the navy’s underwater construction team, based in Norfolk, Va. Two weeks ago he had joined an inspection and repair project on a U.S. Air Force facility in Nea Makri, Greece. Completing his assignment, he boarded TWA Flight 847 out of Athens for home. According to passengers later released, the Shi’ite hijackers quickly discovered that Stethem was a member of the U.S. armed services. Said Ruth Henderson, a 16-year-old Australian girl who sat beside him: “They dragged him out of his seat, tied his hands, then beat him up. They kicked him in the head, in the face, in the kneecaps and they kept kicking until they had broken all his ribs. They tried to knock him out with the butt of a pistol and kept hitting him over the head, but he was very strong. Then they dumped him in his seat, and I tried to nurse him but there wasn’t a great deal I could do. Later, they dragged him away and, I believe, shot him.” Another passenger said Stethem was the bravest man she had ever met.
The Stethems are a naval family. His father, Richard, is a former chief petty officer. His mother, Patricia, has held several civilian posts with the navy. One brother, Kenneth, 24, was Robert’s roommate in Virginia Beach; another, Patrick, 19, enlisted only a few days before the hijacking occurred. Ironically, Robert, who joined the navy in 1980, had loved his job because it allowed him to travel. “He was a proud kid,” his father said last week. “He was very proud of being in the service. We probably need more fighters like him.”
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