Robert Dean Stethem (November 17, 1961 – June 15, 1985) was a United States Navy Seabee diver who was killed by Hezbollah terrorists during the hijacking of the commercial airliner he was aboard, TWA Flight 847.
At the time of his death, his Navy rating was Steelworker Second Class (SW2). He was posthumously promoted to Master Chief Constructionman (CUCM).
Stethem was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, but grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia and Waldorf, Maryland.
He was one of four children. His father, Richard Stethem, retired from the Navy as a Senior Chief after 20 years, continuing to work for it as a civilian afterwards. His mother, Patricia, served in the Navy before raising her family, continuing to serve in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces afterwards.
His brother, Chief Boatswain’s Mate Kenneth Stethem was a Navy SEAL and brother Diver First Class Patrick Stethem served in Underwater Construction Team One for 10 years – the same unit in which Robert served. Stethem had one sister, Sheryl Sierralta.
He graduated from Thomas Stone High School in 1980, where he played defensive back on the varsity and junior varsity football teams. He also played Little League baseball.
Stethem joined the Navy shortly after graduating, reporting for duty on May 4, 1981.
In the Navy, Stethem was a Seabee Steelworker assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 62 in Gulfport, MS. He served multiple tours on Diego Garcia and Guam. Later, Stethem became a 2nd Class Navy Diver and was assigned to the Navy’s Underwater Construction Team One in Little Creek, Virginia.
On June 14, 1985, Stethem was returning from an assignment in Nea Makri, Greece aboard TWA Flight 847 when it was hijacked by members of the Lebanese pro-Iranian organization Hezbollah. The hijackers held 39 people hostage for 17 days, demanding the release of 766 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
When their demands were not met, Stethem, as a member of the US military, was targeted, beaten, and tortured. Finally, the hijackers shot him and dumped his body onto the tarmac at the Beirut airport.
One of the hijackers, Mohammed Ali Hammadi, was arrested two years later in Frankfurt, Germany. He was tried and convicted of Stethem’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Three others, Imad Mugniyah, Hassan Izz-Al-Din, and Ali Atwa, were eventually indicted for their involvement in the incident. In 2002, they were added to the FBI Most Wanted Terrorists list. On February 13, 2008, Imad Mugniyah was killed in an explosion in Damascus, Syria.
Mohammed Ali Hammadi was paroled in December 2005 and returned to Lebanon. It is speculated that he was released in a prisoner swap in exchange for the release of Susanne Osthoff, who was kidnapped in Iraq one month earlier.
Stethem was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery Section 59, Grave 430 (38.8780°N 77.0658°W), near other American victims of international terrorism.
On August 24, 2010, in Yokosuka, Japan, on board the ship named after him – the USS Stethem (DDG-63) – Stethem was made an honorary Master Chief Constructionman (CUCM) by order of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy. His brother, Kenneth, accepted the certificate and decorations on behalf of the Stethem family.
scene from the movie The Delta Force shows a U.S. Navy diver being beaten, tortured, killed and his body being dumped onto the tarmac. This scene is based on Stethem’s encounter.