John Hamen and Mark McAlister stepped off a United Nations flight in Yemen’s capital last October with a simple goal: safely make it to the local Sheraton.
The Middle East nation was embroiled in a civil war. The United States had evacuated its embassy personnel months earlier, and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels had been systematically detaining U.S. citizens ever since American ally Saudi Arabia launched an air campaign against them earlier in the year.
It was the first trip to Yemen for Hamen, a 45-year-old Army veteran and father of seven from Chesapeake. McAlister, a then-57-year-old Tennessean, had been there twice before.
What happened in the next weeks and months haunts McAlister and the Hamen family to this day. They recently detailed their shared ordeal in interviews for the first time.
The State Department contractors were to meet a hotel manager named Yousef at the airport, pick up their travel visas and pass through security. But a hotel worker gave their stamped passports to a man in a doorway. He saw they were Americans and refused to let them pass.
“I said, ‘They’re probably going to check to make sure we’re supposed to be on the roster,’ ” McAlister said. ” ‘No big deal,’ I thought.”
The man in the doorway got on his phone. The airport slowly began emptying.
“I don’t see Yousef anymore,” Hamen said.
Hamen’s wife, Jen, had started to wonder why John hadn’t called her or contacted their children on Skype at their Chesapeake home, as was their routine.
She knew what time his flight was supposed to land in Yemen. Maybe he was stuck in some bureaucratic intake process and he’d have a funny story to tell her later. That’s the kind of thing that happened during his 22 years in the Army.
John had retired from the service in 2012 and been working in sales for military contractors, but was out of work in the summer of 2015 when an opportunity arose that would allow him to get into the field again.
A Tampa, Fla., company offered him a job as a security risk manager for its project renovating and operating the Sheraton hotel in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. The building had housed U.S. embassy personnel before they were evacuated. The United Nations was now using the building, and the State Department still wanted the work done – a contract worth up to $250 million.
Jen and John had talked about the country’s civil war before he agreed to take the job. They knew it was dangerous, but she wasn’t overly concerned.
He just had to make it to the heavily fortified Sheraton, a 30-minute drive from the airport.
“He was supposed to be going straight to the compound, and he wasn’t going to leave for a year,” she said. “So I wasn’t worried. He was supposed to be in a safe place, even though it’s not the safest place he could be.”
Forty-five silent minutes later the airport was empty, and three soldiers wielding AK-47s approached Hamen and McAlister. Someone searched their bags and quickly found a compass, a military first aid kit and military flashlights belonging to Hamen.
“Man, this don’t look good,” McAlister remembered thinking.
Just then, a white van bearing three more armed soldiers joined them. A man told them in English to turn around. McAlister refused until a soldier leveled his weapon at him; then he was blindfolded.
McAlister said he could hear Hamen giving the men a hard time and warned, “‘John, we better comply with their demands. It may not get good if you refuse.’ And so he did.”
Hamen had been in dangerous places before. He had deployed to Iraq three times and had also been to Afghanistan, Somalia and Bosnia, earning two Bronze Stars along the way. He had a reputation for taking care of his troops.
He had told his wife he would call from the hotel.
Make sure the kids do their homework and go to church, he said.
“I love you,” they told each other.
There was one more thing.
“Be safe,” she remembered saying.
They never spoke again.
Hamen and McAlister were thrown into the back seat of the white van.
At least one of the guards spoke English. Both Americans were blindfolded, with their hands tied tightly behind their backs.
McAlister soon heard Hamen whisper: I’ve got my hands free.
The English-speaking guard didn’t appear to hear them. This was their chance.
“We were trained that any time you’re abducted or kidnapped, I think the first couple of hours, maybe the first hour, is the most crucial time to try to escape,” McAlister said.
“I said, ‘I can’t get my other hand out.’ They had them crossed like an X. I got them apart maybe 2 or 3 inches. … I said, ‘John, I can’t get it out, I just can’t get it out.’ ”
There would be no escape attempt.
McAlister and Hamen were taken to a prison, where they were not offered an attorney or any way to contact U.S officials.
Bad water he drank before the flight had sickened McAlister, who leaned against Hamen as they sat on the floor. Both men were told to take off their belts, watches, glasses, shirts, necklaces and shoes.
“I remember John saying – he was taking his wedding ring off – he was saying, ‘My wife is going to kill me.’ ”
John and Jen had a whirlwind romance.
They met while he was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., and married about two weeks after they started dating. She was 19; he was 23.
“We both had a lot of stuff in common. We both wanted a really large family. He was just really kind. He was a kind person. But tough as well,” Jen said.
Their life was typical for a military family. They moved a lot. Their family grew. Their oldest child is 19; their youngest, 10. Four of their children have special needs.
They endured repeated deployments.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “For me, that’s what I signed up for. I was serving my country as a spouse, making sure that he was happy and had support.”
Through it all, John and Jen made communication a priority, and John did everything he could to stay involved with their children.
He made a point to go to school meetings to help formulate their special-needs children’s individualized educational plans. He loved to hunt deer with his oldest son Johann, now 17. He played board games with the family sometimes until 3 a.m.
If Jen had a bad day, John would do his best to make her laugh.
They danced in their kitchen to his smooth voice.
Billy Joel wrote the words, but it was John’s song to sing.
“She can lead you to love, she can take you or leave you. She can ask for the truth, but she’ll never believe,” he’d croon. “And she’ll take what you give her as long as it’s free. Yeah, she steals like a thief. But she’s always a woman to me.”
After they removed personal items, McAlister and Hamen were briefly left alone in a prison room they could tell had windows.
They gauged whether they could escape. Still blindfolded, they noticed they couldn’t feel a breeze. That meant the windows likely were closed.
A guard shouted for them to stop talking. Their escape hopes were foiled once again.
The escape plan was the last thing McAlister remembers speaking about with Hamen.
A group of Houthis walked in a few minutes later, handcuffed and separated them. McAlister could hear the Houthis interrogating Hamen in another room. The questioning of both men went on for hours.
“They was kind of pushing on us and shoving on us and asking us different things,” McAlister said. “They were very obnoxious, very rude people, yelling and screaming.”
“What do you want? Have you ever been here before?” his captors would ask over and over.
The Houthis demanded to know the passwords to McAlister’s electronics. McAlister refused to give up a laptop password because it contained information about the Sheraton’s ability to withstand an attack.
They also showed him pictures of people taken at the hotel and asked who they were. If he didn’t comply, they’d shock him with stun guns.
“What’s your name? Why are you here?” their interrogators shouted.
The Americans kept replying they were civilian contractors working on a hotel used by the UN.
The Houthis didn’t buy it.
They discovered McAlister had two U.S. passports – one was a special State Department issue intended to avoid drawing attention to his previous visits.
“Liars,” they said.
Hamen and McAlister had been in Yemen for about a day when Jen’s phone rang.
It was John’s company, AC4S.
A company official told her John’s plane was being held up. They needed her to send them some documents so he could get on his way.
“They just made it sound like he had some problem with the plane and everything was fine,” Jen said. “And I refused to send them all his military stuff via fax, because it has, you know, secure information. And I told the company, they have his resume.”
The phone rang again about two hours later while Jen was helping Johann with homework. This time someone from the State Department was on the call with AC4S.
John’s plane wasn’t just held up, they said. He was in the custody of the Houthis. The company said it would do whatever it could to free him.
There was no point hiding it from Johann. He could see it on his mother’s face.
“He can read me very well, so he knew immediately that something was wrong and just automatically assumed it was his dad. At that point, he knew whatever I was being told.”
Johann, who was 16, helped his mother find the needed documents. The other children were told there was a problem with the plane and their father’s company would get him to the hotel as soon as they could. It would be a few more days before they, too, knew the truth.
It was about 3 a.m. in Yemen when McAlister’s captors finally stopped their initial interrogation.
He was taken down a hallway and placed in a 12-by-9-foot cell with no light.
The Houthis gave McAlister a 2-inch-thick mattress. A hole in the floor served as his toilet. There was no toilet paper.
He still wasn’t sure who was holding them. Scared, he prayed that night for God to stop his heart.
That summer, the White House had created a Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell to coordinate the recovery of U.S. hostages abroad.
It involved the Defense, State, Justice and Treasury departments, the FBI and the intelligence community.
But now, in the fall, Jen said, it was AC4S leading the efforts to return her husband. When she heard from the FBI, there was little they could offer her.
U.S. policy allows for the government to work with private entities to locate and recover American hostages. The State Department said in response to questions that it “did our utmost to ensure his security, as we do for all U.S. citizens unjustly detained overseas.”
Jen decided after a few days it was time for the rest of her children to know what was happening.
“They were getting worried and they saw me on the phone a lot, having to talk to the company or get documents together. So I talked to them and told them that Fusion Cell said their dad was safe and that he was being well taken care of and that he was going to either come back home after this or go on to the Sheraton.”
It was after about the seventh day of John’s captivity that she began to question her government’s actions.
“Early on, yeah, I thought that they were doing all they could. Except they just continued to let the company do it and the State Department wasn’t doing anything,” she said.
She’d pretend to wash clothes so she could shut the laundry room door and cry without her children seeing her.
Meanwhile, AC4S had called. They needed her to shut down all social media.
Twenty days in, McAlister got a cellmate who told him where he was: the National Security Prison for al-Qaida, and that the United States had paid for it. The State Department denied this.
His captors later said they had learned their interrogation techniques from Americans.
On the 22nd day, McAlister’s captors let him outside into the prison yard. With his cellmate translating, he learned the other men were part of al-Qaida. The men laughed.
“You’re just like them,” the cellmate said. “You’re a prisoner. We’re all in here as brothers. We all hate the Houthis and when they get out, they will kill the Houthis.”
The Hamen family poses at their oldest daughter’s graduation from high school.
Photo Courtesy of Jen Hamen
Jen’s twin daughters were celebrating their 12th birthday an their first middle school dance Nov. 6 when their mother’s cellphone rang.
Her contact from the FBI said she needed to be at her house in 10 minutes. The day before, they had briefed her on the situation in Yemen. They also told her they couldn’t be sure John was safe.
“I had just got them in the door and the Fusion Cell knocked on the door,” he said. “My contact, he asked me if he could speak to just me and have the kids go somewhere else.”
Another agent took her children upstairs. It didn’t matter. They heard their mother scream.
Houthis had dropped off Hamen’s body at a local hospital. The rebels said they found him dead in his prison cell.
It took nearly two hours for Jen to compose herself before she could tell her children. And at that point, the FBI didn’t know much either. It would be several days before John’s body was flown back to the United States for an autopsy.
The FBI eventually left, but not before they had Jen’s neighbors come over so she wasn’t alone. It was her neighbors who made the phone calls to tell family and friends what little information there was.
Jen got back on Facebook the next day to tell the world what the State Department had not.
“On October 20th John was detained in Yemen while working as a contractor. Many of you probably did not know about this due to this being a privacy concern with officials in the government when it happened. Yesterday around 5:30 pm a few people from different agencies came to our home to notify us that John had died while in detainment and then was taken to a hospital. His body will arrive in Dover in less than 48 hours. I plan to post any further details here.
“I am sorry that I was not able to call many of his friends, but his phone and laptop were with him when he was detained and I do not have any of his contacts other than FB. Our family is heartbroken right now, I have lost the love of my life, my best friend, and my 7 kids have lost the best dad ever!”
Hamen’s body had been transported to the U.S. embassy in Oman, where he was identified through his tattoos. The Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office later conducted an autopsy.
Cause of death: asphyxiation. Manner: homicide.
In Greenfield, Tenn., McAlister’s wife Crystal could do little but wait and pray.
One of her daughters had reached out to Jen Hamen on Facebook shortly after she had learned they were detained and asked if she would speak to her mother.
The two women would talk on the phone and compare notes about what the FBI was telling them. Theirs was a support system born out of a nightmare.
But the phone calls stopped for a while after John died. The FBI told Crystal to let Jen have her space.
A viewing and reception for friends and family at funeral home in Portsmouth was scheduled for Nov. 20.
Two hours before the reception was to begin, Jen’s phone rang again.
It was the FBI. They had the results of John’s autopsy, that it wasn’t a natural or accidental death. Worse, the broken ribs, lacerations, abrasions and contusions suggested he may have been tortured.
Jen was furious.
“I let them all know how angry I was, because they did nothing to get him out. I told them the government let him down after he gave 22 years of his life to them,” she said.
Then she composed herself to greet well-wishers. John’s memorial service was the next day and she wasn’t going to let him down.
It wasn’t going to be a typical service, either.
As friends, family and John’s former brothers-in-arms gathered at Believers Church in Chesapeake, John’s casket made a grand entrance.
The “Star Wars” theme blared over the church’s speakers to announce his arrival. When he left, Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” played.
“He had wanted that played at his retirement ceremony, so Johann thought it was only fitting for it to be played for him,” Jen said.
But that wasn’t the end of the grieving. Thanksgiving and Christmas passed. And then it was time for John’s burial.
He had always wanted to be interred with others who had served their country at Arlington National Cemetery. So on Jan. 4, the family said goodbye again.
After six months of captivity and repeated questioning, McAlister’s cell door opened again. He was taken down a hallway for what he presumed would be yet another interrogation.
But once he was sat in a chair, one of the men told him he was going home the next day. He didn’t believe it.
The stress and claustrophobia from his cell had taken its toll, and he had gone on hunger strikes in hopes of seeing John again. His ribs were visible.
The Houthis handed off McAlister to Saudi Arabian officials at the border. A U.S. security official later broke the news to him that Hamen had been killed. McAlister was the last American known to have seen him alive.
“I was kind of losing it,” McAlister said. “That kind of put me in a state of shock, again. I just couldn’t believe it. For all this time, I thought he was still alive and they had me thinking he was.”
It wasn’t long after Mark crossed into Saudi Arabia that Jen got a phone call. It was the FBI again. They wanted to let her know Mark had been released.
“I was happy that Mark had been released. I cried,” she said. “I remember crying that night because I wish that John was walking out with Mark.”
On Mother’s Day, Mark reached out to Jen. He wanted her to know that, in John’s last days, it was her and the kids he talked about most.
Mark and the Hamens still have not met in person.
Their families have a federal lawsuit pending against Iran and Syria over support of the rebels. There’s still plenty of healing for the Hamen family to do in the meantime.
Jen says things were starting to turn around this summer, even if her youngest children remained too scared to play outside alone.
But then came October and the anniversary of John’s capture.
November is worse.
“The anniversary of his murder. It just really knocked us back again,” she said. “The kids are having a hard time going to school, because, the memory.”
But there are good memories, too. Jen is determined not to let them fade.
She wants her children to know what a good man their father was, that when he was overseas with the Army he genuinely wanted to help the people of those countries. He was in Yemen for the same reason.
It’s a message that seems to be resonating. When she asked her youngest son last week if he wants to go to college, he said there was something else he needed to do: join the military like his dad. That makes three of their children who have such plans.
She knows John would be proud.
As the anniversary of John’s memorial service approaches this weekend, he’d be proud of one more thing.
Jen will wake up, face the day and then do it again. He wouldn’t want her to be miserable, and she has no plans to be.
That’s how she supports him now. Beginning life with hope each day.