TRIBUTE TO TOM SUTHERLAND
We recently lost a special friend that we admired very much. Tom Sutherland was a true American hero. He served on our Board of Directors for many years and was later honored as Emeritus. The title of our book, THE HERO WITHIN, was inspired by Tom and his resilience.
Tom was held hostage by Shiite Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon for 6 ½ years. During those 2,354 days he never saw sunlight and was severely abused physically, mentally and emotionally. Yet, he held no bitterness, nor sought any kind of revenge against his captors. Nor did his wife, Jean, who lovingly and steadfastly supported him during captivity and then in his release and recovery.
Tom never had a poor me attitude, choosing rather to live life to the fullest and use his experiences to inspire others. He always treated people, no matter who they were, with dignity, respect and generosity. His optimism was amazing!
Tom was a living ambassador for “resilience — the human capacity to face, overcome and even be transformed by adversity.” He spent tireless hours telling his story and relating it to the lives of the abused children and youth we serve. He met directly with youth, sharing and listening to their experiences. They were inspired by him. He even rode horses with them!
We publically honor and pay tribute to Tom and Jean for their life journeys and accomplishments.
Tom’s story and connection to Colorado Boys Ranch is chronicled in chapter 17 of THE HERO WITHIN. This story plus a History Channel feature of Tom and his interaction with CBR youth is available on our website.
Tom Sutherland, the second longest held captive in the Middle East, did not see the sun from June 9, 1985 until November 17, 1991. Six and a half years. During that time, Tom was almost constantly blindfolded, chained to the wall, beaten, and sometimes left in solitary confinement. He was wrapped head to foot in duct tape and transported over rough roads in the tire well under the bed of a truck, choking on exhaust fumes. Throughout the ordeal, and through deep depressions, Tom and his fellow hostages held onto hope for survival.
Nine years after Sutherland’s release from the Islamic Jihad, TV’s History Channel produced a documentary about his captivity in Lebanon, focusing on what Tom had accomplished in the years since regaining his freedom. The narrator describes the dark horror of the roach-infested cells where Tom was imprisoned, and says, “Today, Sutherland’s life is still deeply affected by his hostage experience. Not as a nightmare, but as a mission. Sutherland joined the board of Colorado Boys Ranch in La Junta, Colorado six years after his release. For Sutherland, this is a calling that increasingly fulfills his life post-captivity.”
In the History Channel film, Tom says, “Being involved with that Boys Ranch has given me an insight into just how many young men are abused, some of them brutally abused. And when I look at that and contrast it to my experience, I think maybe I can help here, because I understand what they’ve gone through. I think they sense that I’m a kindred spirit. That they can talk to me.”
The boys do talk to him. Sitting at a picnic table at Colorado Boys Ranch with a group of boys, each of whom has his own dark history, Tom discusses the abuse he received as a hostage. Although he has been a naturalized American citizen for many years, his voice still carries the native Scottish burr. Tom grew up in a stone farmhouse on the banks of the River Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland. “I come from ‘Brave Heart’ country,” he says, referring to the rugged and beautiful land made familiar by the movie of that name.
As he speaks of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his captors, the boys listen intently. One boy tells Tom that he had been beaten too, but not imprisoned like Tom.
“It doesn’t feel very nice, does it?” Tom asks. “Who did that to you?”
Almost inaudibly, the boy whispers, “My Dad.”
Before Tom and the boys saddle up their horses for a ride on the mesa, one boy featured in the History Channel film says of Tom, “I think he should be a mentor for everybody on the Ranch. Most of them have problems that they are fighting with mentally, like aggression and abuse. So, I think he’s pretty cool for being able to come back like that.”
Tom’s wife, Jean Sutherland, agrees. “He never looked back,” she says. “He never has flashbacks. He never has nightmares. He can talk about his experience. And I think talking about it and using that experience to benefit others, like those boys, has been his healing.”
For Tom, as it is for the boys who come to CBR YouthConnect, healing was necessary. In his account of his hostage experience, At Your Own Risk, co-written by Tom and Jean, Tom writes of those dark times, blindfolded and chained to the wall. “I couldn’t seem even to cope with the simplest mental activities, and began to despair of my mind…I fell into extreme depression, and began seriously to believe that I was losing my mind and my sanity… At times we were given books and I tried to read them. But in contrast to my colleagues, when I got to the end of a page, I would stop and ask myself, ‘What have I just read? What did it say?’ To my horror, I could remember not a single thing of what I had just read word by word in the previous five minutes! I truly feared that my mind was disintegrating and that I would never again be right. The end of my intellectual life?”
For Tom, who was the Dean of Agriculture at the American University of Beirut at the time he was kidnapped, this was a severe blow. He writes, “I was in panic! How I’d come to this point I couldn’t say—whether due to the harassment from the guards or from the very fact of being in captivity, I couldn’t have said nor did it matter at that time; all I knew for sure was that I was in deep psychological trouble.”
Under the stress of captivity, even passing the time by playing a simple game like Twenty Questions with the other hostages was difficult for Tom. Unable to remember that “Casper” was the Friendly Ghost, Tom felt mortified in front of his fellow cellmates. He writes, “I was being called dumb. I couldn’t ever recall having been called that in my entire life, not in earnest and with such genuine feeling, anyway. Had there been anywhere to hide, I certainly would have run for it. But where can one hide in a 14 by 12 foot room with four pairs of eyes bearing on one? The ultimate in humiliation. Could I have come to this in less than three months of captivity?”
Within about a year and a half, Tom says, “I went down to nothing, to a nadir, where I was essentially a blithering idiot.” His lowest point came in a particularly humiliating manner. Tom had been in isolation in his cell, waiting hours to be taken to the bathroom. “I was bursting to urinate,” Tom says. “Finally, came a rattle at the big door to the guard room. I was at the window of my cell with my blindfold. I didn’t speak, but I wanted them to know I was there.” After he heard the other hostages being taken to the bathroom, Tom heard only silence. He lifted a corner of his blindfold to see if he had been forgotten. But it was a trick. The guard had been silently waiting, hoping to catch Tom in a forbidden act. The lifted blindfold was enough justification in the guard’s mind to give Tom a severe beating.
Tom writes, “He came swooping down on me with a big holler. ‘Why you looking?’ He went into his buddies in the guardroom. They took me out of my cell and laid me down on my back and held my feet up and started whacking me on the insoles of my feet with a rubber truncheon. Really, really painful. I started screaming. The guards said, ‘No screaming.’ But pretty soon they were screaming louder than I was. They were hitting me on my thighs, calves, ribs, shoulders, and by the time they were done I was black and blue from my neck to my feet. Afterwards, they weren’t even going to take me to the toilet. I just pleaded with them and eventually they did.”
It didn’t seem as though things could get worse, but they did. “They blocked off my little barred window with a steel shutter and I was more than ever in the dark. Underground like that it is really dark. I got no outside light, no candle.” Tom had to eat in the dark and had no contact whatsoever with his companions. He says, “I was as angry as hops and desperate and I thought, ‘I’m not going to put up with this. To Hell with them.’ I determined to end it all and commit suicide. I tried three times, but I couldn’t go through with it.”
Tom was saved by a vision of his wife and daughters. “Before my eyes in my semi stupor: Jean and Ann and Kit and Joan were there, all four as clear as could be. ‘God,’ I thought desperately. ‘God. I can’t. I can’t do this to them. Not fair!’” They are endlessly grateful for his courage. “I am here today, and very glad to be here,” Tom writes. But at the time, he had to hang on “A day at a time, just get through a day at a time.”
The loneliness of captivity was relieved to a great degree when he was returned to the group cell. Tom writes of his relationships with the other hostages and the “power of community.” But during years of captivity, Tom’s self confidence had dwindled away. Feeling he was losing intellectual debates with his cellmate, AP journalist Terry Anderson, had destroyed Tom’s self-confidence. Being able to do something helped to restore him. Tom was always handy and, when he was able to repair the broken light fixture in their cell, that “did a lot for my self-confidence and mildly improved my standing,” Tom writes, referring to the pecking order that was developing among the hostages.
And, despite his intellectual conflicts with Terry Anderson, Tom says, “Terry was the biggest restorer of my soul and my faith. Terry would say, ‘Come on! Come on! We’re not going to let them get us down. Come on! Get up man!’ Frankly, I would say he literally saved my life. We were together for 70 months out of the 77 months that I was there and the 80 months that he was. So, he and I were joined at the hip, essentially.”
They were, in fact, joined together by chains. And, as much as anything, the two hostages, lying blindfolded on foam pads chained to the wall, suffered from frustration and boredom. In Tom’s book, At Your Own Risk, and in Terry Anderson’s book Den of Lions, both men relate a particular diversion used to maintain their sanity. Terry had a quick and curious mind. He asked Tom, a former professor of agriculture, to teach him.
Tom agreed. Lying blindfolded on the ground, he gave Terry a one-on-one tutorial, from memory, on animal science and other courses. “It turned out to be rather fun and it did pass the time,” Tom writes. “Armed with all this new knowledge of agriculture, Terry had an idea. There were plenty of kids that were going wrong where he came from and he had this idea of saving these kids from going completely astray. He was going to build a school that was part of a farm. He would have the kids working on the farm and that was to be their salvation. Giving them something to do.”
Tom had been an agriculture professor at Colorado State University but was not familiar with Colorado Boys Ranch before going to Lebanon. Thus, when Terry asked Tom to help him devise a plan for a farm facility for troubled boys, they thought they were working from scratch. Tom was later to become Chairman Emeritus of the Colorado Boys Ranch Foundation Board, a facility very similar to the one he and Terry dreamed up, but which had already existed for many years.
Tom recalls the many questions that Terry had for him as he planned his farm. “He would ask, ‘What do you feed a cow and how much? How do you get milk out of a cow? What’s a milking parlor?’ All these things that were second nature to me,” Tom says.
“Then Terry realized he was going to have to have pretty special teachers to handle boys who were on the edge of getting in trouble with the law. And Terry wasn’t sure how he was going to get the money to do this. Having just been a dean and having had to get money for various projects,” Tom writes, “I told him about seeking grants from individuals and foundations.”
“It all took weeks and months at a time and kept our minds very occupied—all the while talking from behind blindfolds with no pencil or paper,” Tom writes. “In subsequent cells, we had paper and talked of revising the project and of honing the budget. I was giving him all these ideas and he was writing them up for his proposal. Endless hours of discussion and planning. But time we had.”
Terry was so attached to this plan that he “wrote it all out, every detail, in the smallest handwriting I have ever seen,” Tom writes. “He wrapped the pages, perhaps eight to ten of them in plastic and hid them in the one place where the guards, given their extreme prudishness, never ventured—in his crotch.” But eventually the guards did discover the notes and took them away. “We never saw paper or pen again until the day of my departure,” writes Tom.
With freedom, Tom was able to celebrate with friends and family back in Fort Collins, Colorado, but he was not content to simply retire to a life of ease. In the thirteen years since his release, he has shared his experience and knowledge wherever, and in whatever way, he feels it can do the most good. Tom has lectured at countless venues about his experiences as a hostage in the Middle East. And despite, or perhaps because of, having been beaten and abused by young men during that time, Tom has devoted himself to the education and treatment of troubled youth, especially helping troubled boys at CBR.
“After my release,” Tom says, “I learned about Colorado Boys Ranch while on a skiing trip with my friend Owen Smith, a CBR board member. I was prejudiced in favor of CBR since it was in a rural setting. I think it has a lot of calming influence to be out in the country. When I was a dean at the American University in Beirut, my agriculture students never saw many plants. Kids growing up in Beirut, even wealthy kids, all they saw were a few plants on their balconies. It wasn’t safe to go out into countryside. When I got those students out to farm in Bekaa Valley, they felt it was the biggest, most wonderful happening in their whole time at the University. It was a revelation for them.”
“Owen drove me down to the Boys Ranch and we spent a day there with Chuck Thompson, CBR President, and I thought this is a good place, and Chuck Thompson is a good man,” says Tom. “I thought he was such an articulate spokesman for the boys and such a sympathetic guy. He really had the interest of these boys right at heart. I was interviewed and they decided to invite me to be on the board.”
“Owen and the other board members cared so much about the Ranch,” Tom says. “Somehow it gets a passion in people and that’s what’s passed on to other people. What I enjoy most about working on the board and with Chuck is feeling that it is a mission that is worthwhile doing. Chuck Thompson is a saint. The people on the CBR board are really diverse: doctors, lawyers, professors, businessmen, and realtors. They really get in there and pitch like crazy. It is the hardest-working board I’ve ever been on. And you feel like you can get things done.”
“At the Boys Ranch,” Tom says, “they do something that those boys have never had before and that is give them love. I think that’s a big part of it.”
“I’ve talked to Chuck about it,” Tom says. “They ask those kids, ‘What would you like to do when you come to the Boys Ranch here?’ It’s almost the first time they’ve heard that question, “What would you like to do?” Telling them what to do doesn’t work with kids.”
“After I learned about CBR,” Tom says, “I called Terry Anderson from Colorado and said, ‘Hey Anderson, remember that farm you were going to create in New York?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘I found it. We’ve got it right out here and I’m joining the board.’”
Terry came out to Colorado to visit CBR with Tom and several other board members. He got a thorough tour of the campus from Chuck Thompson and learned about the extensive professional staff: psychiatrist, psychologists, social workers, teachers, nurses, educators, and vocational specialists that work with the boys. “I want to tell you,” says Tom, “You never saw guys so engrossed in what a man had to say. When Chuck was done talking, Terry said, ‘Boy, you and I were sure naïve. This whole operation is so much more complicated than I ever even dreamed it was.’”
On October 9, 1999, Terry Anderson and Tom Sutherland spoke on behalf of CBR at the University of Denver. Roger O’Neil, of NBC Nightly News, acted as master of ceremonies. Nearly 300 people listened as Sutherland and Anderson described their long ordeal as hostages in the Middle East. Terry commented on how valuable it would be if the stories of the troubled boys at CBR, who have overcome their own psychological captivities, could be told in their own words and shared with the world. That was the immediate catalyst for The Hero Within.
* * *
It is the spring of 2005. Tom and Jean Sutherland sample the Scotch eggs at the Stonehouse Grill in Fort Collins, Colorado. The cozy eatery, recently opened by their daughter and son-in-law, is named after the stone farmhouse in Scotland where Tom was raised. They laugh in delight with their daughter Kit as she unpacks a box of kilts, to be used as garb for the wait staff. The atmosphere during the busy lunch hour at the Stonehouse Grill is one of relaxed and cheerful family togetherness. Tom and Jean’s meal is frequently interrupted by the greetings of friends and neighbors, but they don’t seem to mind. In fact they relish it. There were so many years when they and their daughters Ann, Joan, and Kit could only dream of such a gathering.
A photo of Tom’s boyhood farm home is displayed on the restaurant wall, along with another of Tom in his youth, a handsome young man kicking a soccer ball through a goal. Tom tells a story about soccer that is emblematic of his tenacity as a youth and as a hostage.
“Growing up in Scotland,” Tom says, “I was always nuts about soccer, and when I went to school I was eager to be in it. On the playground, we set up two goals, and the two best guys would choose the teams, one each, until all were chosen. One of the hotshot players doing the choosing was named Alfie Mc Nab. Well, I was the last one chosen and I went to the other guy. I remember Alfie laughing and saying, ‘You got stuck with Sutherland!’”
Tom says, “I thought to myself, ‘You ridiculed me! You son of a gun. I’ll show you!’” Tom honed his skills and in 1949, as a senior at Falkirk High School, scored 55 goals in a season, a school record which still stands. He went on to be chosen to play outside left for the Scottish Youth International Soccer Team against England, Wales, Ireland, France, and Holland, and was signed by the Glasgow Rangers.
Tom’s triumph over his ordeal as a hostage shows the same kind of tenacity he had as a young soccer player. The strength of the Sutherland family as they waited for Tom’s return displayed a similar resolve. Their dedication, each for the other, was tested during those years of Tom’s captivity in Lebanon and found to be as sturdy as any house of stone. Tom and Jean’s commitment to peaceful solutions to the difficult problems of the world, already strong when they arrived at the American University of Beirut in 1979, has only grown since those days.
Amazingly, Tom holds no bitterness for his captors. “A lot of people think I should feel angry and bitter that these young guys treated me so badly,” says Tom. “But, I honestly felt sorry for them, because they had never had a chance in life at all. Any of them. I never felt like I should be angry at them.” Sympathy and empathy seem to come naturally to Tom. Perhaps his sympathy and empathy for the troubled boys of the world, like those that come to CBR YouthConnect, is what makes Tom work so hard on their behalf. A Brave Heart you could call him.