#088: Hostage US: Rescued Hostage Jessica Buchanan & Executive Director Liz Cathcart

Wednesday January 25, 2023

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

About 200 Americans are taken hostage or wrongfully detained each year across the globe. Fran Racioppi traveled to Old Town Alexandria for a conversation on keeping America’s promise to its citizens with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart.

Jessica shares her story of being kidnapped by some of the very children she went to Somalia to educate. She explains how she coped with detention and complete loss of control over her life, including her last night in captivity that went from a surreal quiet, to gunfire, to rescue by Navy SEAL Team 6.

Liz shares the four pillars of support Hostage US provides. She describes the difficulty reintegration brings and how Hostage US supplies the necessary resources to help all involved cope with redefining their lives after captivity. 

Pick up a copy of Jessica’s book, Impossible Odds and her new book Deserts to Mountaintops. Follow her on social media @jessicabuchanan and on the web at jessicabuchanan.com

Go to hostageus.org to support American hostages, detainees, and their families, as they cope with captivity and reintegration. 

Read the full episode transcription here and learn more on The Jedburgh Podcast Website. Subscribe to us and follow @jedburghpodcast on all social media. Watch the full video version on YouTube.

Listen to the podcast here


About Jessica Buchanan

TJP 88 | Hostage USOn October 25, 2011, while on a routine field mission in Somalia, working as the Education Advisor for her non-governmental organization, Jessica was abducted at gunpoint and held for ransom by a group of Somali pirates for 93 days. Forced to live outdoors in deplorable conditions, starved, and terrorized by more than two dozen gangsters, Jessica’s health steadily deteriorated until, by order of President Obama, she was rescued by the elite SEAL Team VI on January 25, 2012.

Jessica’s ordeal is detailed in her New York Times bestselling book, Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six.


About  Liz Cathcart

TJP 88 | Hostage USLiz Frank is the Executive Director of Hostage US. Liz joined the founding executive director in January, 2016, prior to the launch of Hostage US and together, they stood up the organization. Liz previously held the role of Director of Programs and Operations overseeing the day-to-day operations of the non-profit and the programs that fulfilled the mission. Liz grew and developed the Family Support Program and enhanced the training of the team members who deliver direct support, grew strategic partnerships and expanded the services available for families. Liz continues to oversee the direct support delivered to families and former hostages.



Hostage US: Supporting Families Of US Citizens In Captivity With Rescued Hostage Jessica Buchanan & Executive Director Liz Cathcart

About 200 Americans are taken hostage or wrongfully detained each year across the globe. We usually only hear about a few of them. The reasons vary. Money is the most common reason for kidnapping. Ideology is another. America has a promise to its citizens, and it’s, “We’ll do whatever it takes for however long it takes to come to get you and bring you home.”TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

For this episode, I traveled to Old Town Alexandria outside Washington DC for a conversation on keeping America’s promise. I’m joined by Jessica Buchanan and Liz Cathcart. Jessica was an aid worker taken hostage in Somalia. She spent 90 days captive, enduring poor physical health and severe illness. Jessica shares her story of being kidnapped by some of the very children she went to Somalia to educate and help. She explains how she coped with the detention and the complete loss of control of her life. She describes her last night in captivity which went from a surreal quiet to gunfire to some of the most important words in American power. It was like, “Jessice, this is the American military. We’ve come to take you home. You’re safe.”

I’ve known Liz Cathcart for several years. Liz is the Executive Director of Hostage US, a nonprofit that supports hostages and their families. Liz shares the four pillars of the support Hostage US provides. She describes the difficulty of reintegration and explains how Hostage US supplies the necessary resources to help all involved cope with redefining their lives after the captivity. Take a look at my conversation with Jessica and Liz on your favorite platforms. Watch the full video version on YouTube.

Pick up a copy of Jessica’s book, Impossible Odds, to learn more about her captivity and rescue by Seal Team Six. Follow her on social media @JessicaBuchanan and on the web at JessicaBuchanan.com. Go to HostageUS.org to get involved with Hostage US to support American hostages, detainees, and their families as they cope with captivity and reintegration. Don’t miss my episode nine conversation with Hostage US Board Member and former hostage of Somali Pirates for 977 days, journalist Michael Scott Moore. Subscribe to us and follow @JedburghPodcast on all social media.

Jess and Liz, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast.

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Thanks for having us.

Since we started the show, we had Michael Scott Moore, who also spent some time with Somali Pirates. It was two years and nine months. He was on episode nine. His story was so captivating and the way he tells it. His story is also what brought me to Hostage US. I’ve talked about it before, but I met Liz and Michael at the Sony Pictures event. I immediately looked at what I saw as a ghost because when I had been in Africa, I had been briefed on his case every day. We were actively always trying to figure out where he was and what information we could get.

Your case and his case were very closely aligned. Yours being previous to his. We’ll get into everything. A lot of the reason why they went to the ground with him was because of your successful rescue. Telling that story and then being able to sit here with you is a tremendous honor. I thank you very much for making the trip.

I’m happy to be here.

I want to talk about Hostage US for a few minutes because, as an organization, they’re doing tremendous work. Liz, we’ll go into the mission of the organization. It’s near and dear to my heart. We talk about the Jedburghs and their history. They’re three-man teams that parachuted into occupied France the night before D-Day. Alone and unafraid is the term I use to link up with French resistance. Many of them were killed and captured.

That organization went on to become the Green Berets. Every special operator, whether you’re a Green Beret, a Navy SEAL, MARSOC Operator, an Air Force PJ, or a Special Operator, goes through a tremendous amount of training to set you up for these situations. I will tell you that all that gets thrown out the window when you’re in that situation. It doesn’t matter what training you’ve had, as you know firsthand. It’s a story and it’s an organization that when I came onto it, I immediately said, “This is something I want to support.” Liz, can you talk for a few minutes about Hostage US, the mission, and how you’ve been impacting this space over the last several years?

Thanks. I appreciate that intro and setting the scene. Hostage US is an NGO. We support families of Americans taken hostage abroad or wrongfully detained by state actors. We support them through a variety of different services, including financial, advisory, legal support, mental health, and general emotional support. We try to help them to cope throughout the case. When they need to make decisions, we’re there to help be a soundboard for them and think through some of the decisions.

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

“Hostage US is a NGO. We support families of Americans taken hostage abroad or wrongfully detained by state actors.”

One of the things that you were saying at the beginning is the operational side. There are so many people involved in the operations of these cases, but what gets left out of the picture is the family. It’s the family who’s at home fighting every day for their loved one but isn’t getting enough information to know and understand every element of the operations. They’re suffering from financial burdens and legal problems that come up when a spouse, a child, or a parent is taken hostage. We’re there to support those elements of it.

When folks are released and come home, we help them to get back on their feet. We have very similar services for folks who are coming home. The caveat there is that we also have hospital partnerships where we can send them to different hospitals that can give them a full checkup on their medical needs, mental health needs, dental, nutritional needs, and things like that.

It’s important to note, too, here that these are not isolated incidents. We average about, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, somewhere around 200 Americans every year who are in some form of captivity. You look at the Brittney Griner situation that’s going on in Russia. We hear about high-profile cases like yours, Jessica, and Michael, but this is happening all over the world. 

There are different elements to it, too. You have criminal groups who take hostages anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks. You have terrorist organizations that take folks for much longer. You have wrongful detentions where it’s a state actor who’s holding an American for a political pawn and political reasons. The support that we give runs a gamut of situations that are hours long to situations that are ten-plus years long.

You’re right. Every year, we have about 200 Americans taken hostage. Many of those are resolved fairly quickly and not with the input of the government or anything like that. The cases that are particularly impactful and challenging to manage are those of terrorists and wrongful detention cases that last for a long time.

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

“The cases that are particularly impactful and challenging to manage are those terrorist and wrongful detention cases that last for a long time.”

There are four manuals that the organization has written. The first one is coping with kidnapping. The second one is life after captivity. The third one is getting back to work. The fourth one is handling the media and social media. We talk a lot about media and social media. They make a lot more problems sometimes, especially in situations like this and being part of the media. I thought what we would do is take these four areas, talk about your story, Jess, and tie back in where Hostage US comes into the picture during each one of these phases.

You went to Africa to work with schoolchildren. I went to Africa for a very different reason. It was to combat terrorism. You wanted an unconventional way of teaching. There are so many organizations in Africa who were doing that, and then there are so many terrorist organizations sides who are targeting people and going to the continent to do good work and impactful work for a demographic and populations who have almost relatively nothing. You used a term called Africa Jess, which I started laughing about because I have many pictures of Africa Fran.

I’m dying right here. This was many years ago. It’s a whole new life.

I need an Africa Liz again.

Everybody needs an African experience. My husband cringes every time that comes up. We all do things like this. You’re young and idealistic. I don’t ever do anything conventionally. It’s not in my DNA. I’m a teacher at heart. Everything I do will always have some teaching component to it. I’ve got a teaching degree from a university outside of Philadelphia.

[bctt tweet=”Everybody needs an African experience.” username=”talentwargroup”]

While everybody was getting their student teaching positions lined up in the public schools and the college town, I was like, “I’ll go to Kenya,” and so I did. It was amazing. The school offered me a job. It was an international school, so I had pictured something very different. I had done trips, like volunteer trips, where I’d been in the bush and done things a little bit more simplistically. I also needed to eat if I was going to work, so I had to make a salary, which wasn’t much.

I was 25 and started teaching fourth grade in an international school in Nairobi. It was so much fun. I loved it. Two weeks after I landed there, I met my husband. I went out one night and there was a Swedish guy named Erik. I thought his name was Orik all night until he wrote his phone number down. I’d never met anybody from Sweden. It seemed plausible.TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

We dated for a year and a half and got married. He is the equivalent of a human rights lawyer. He was working for a Swedish organization and then started working for a Dutch organization. They moved him up to Hargeisa, Somali land so he could do his work. We didn’t want to have a long-distance marriage, so I quit my teaching job and moved up there. I’m a teacher. I can find work anywhere, and I did. I made a new life for myself up there in Hargeisa, which is a strange place to start out your newly married life.

It brings you together.

It was one of those things that I could never recreate, like the environment, the people that I spent time with, and the friends that I made. It was fun. The work that I ended up doing, I started working for an NGO. It was a Danish organization. They worked in community safety and armed violence reduction, which was not my technical expertise, but you can learn anything. I threw myself into the job. It was amazing.

I traveled all over East Africa doing education advising for the organization. It was great until it wasn’t. October 25th, 2011, I was on a field mission. I had staff training down in Galkayo, a little bit North of Mogadishu, Somalia. I didn’t feel good about it. I had canceled it two times before, but my colleague, a Danish gentleman named Paul, was my counterpart living down there running that field office. He put a lot of pressure on me. He was like, “You need to get down here. This is your job. The staff is waiting for you.” It was all the things. I always chuckle like, “I’m a school teacher from Ohio. What’s the worst that’s going to happen?” The worst thing did happen.

I went down there and it was three days. It was the third day when we were in transit, which was what I was worried about because if something is going to happen, it’s usually going to be when you’re on the road. I was on my way back to the North office, about ready to get on a plane to get back up to Hargeisa, and our car was overtaken by armed men. That moment changed the rest of my life.

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

“Our car was overtaken by armed men…and that moment, it changed the rest of my life.”

Talk about the first 24 hours. When we look at hostage or captivity situations, you have to get through those first 24 hours. Everybody is pent up on both sides. Emotions are high on the hostage taker and the hostage themselves. This is where a lot of things tend to go wrong unexpectedly on both sides. Talk a little bit about, if you would, the first 24 hours, your mindset, and how you got through that.

The kidnapping happened probably around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. They drove us out of Galkayo. I could tell we were going South, which was bad because, to me, Southern Somalia meant Al-Shabaab. I’m an American woman. My passport was in my bag in the back. There was no way I could fake that, even if they didn’t know who I was. That felt scary.

I’ve got a gun to my head. There are armed gunmen all over the place. We were being driven for hours. We changed personnel several times. We stopped and had to get in different vehicles. We drive for maybe 7 or 8 hours into the middle of the night. I had two thoughts running through my head on repeat and couldn’t think of anything else. The first one was like, “This is bad. Whatever is happening right now is so bad.”

I don’t have any frame of reference to access in my brain as to what to do because nothing in my life has prepared me for something like this. I’d been through an internal heat training with the organization that was very lackluster at best. Somewhere, I remembered that if I lived through the first 48 hours, then they probably weren’t going to kill me. Maybe I had a chance of survival. That 24 to 48-hour window was important to me in terms of staying alive. The other thought that I kept thinking was like, “If I make it out of this thing, nothing will ever be the same for me again. It has changed everything.”

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

“Somewhere I remembered that if I lived through the first 48 hours then they probably weren’t going to kill me.”

It was probably 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. They stopped the vehicles for one final time and forced us out of the cars. They ordered us to walk out into the desert. It was a final moment for me because I thought for sure that this was it. I was like, “I’m going to be marched out into the desert. I’m going to be gang raped and executed. I don’t know why I’m here and what I did to deserve this. This is so random.”

We marched. We were surrounded. I still remember hearing these belts of ammunition, like bullets clanking together as we walked. We were surrounded and they forced us down onto our knees. I don’t know if everybody thinks this, but I’ve always wondered, “What’s it going to be like when I die? What are those final moments going to be like?” I never thought to imagine that it would end so violently.

One of them tells us to collapse and go to sleep. That’s what I did. When you’re in such a stressful situation, your body takes over because it needs to protect you. I knew my mind needed an escape for a few hours, so I blacked out. I completely passed out from the stress and the shock. We woke up the next morning. We couldn’t figure out who had us. There was no information for weeks. You’re sitting there watching this very new strange world go by and you’re not privy to any of the decisions or the information.

Liz, I want to ask you about this initial point of capture. Can you talk for a minute about where does Hostage US start to come into the picture in a situation like this?

As soon as possible is the best way of doing it. Naturally, families aren’t necessarily thinking of themselves. They don’t think they might need the support. Frankly, no one is thinking it’s going to be any longer than a couple of days or hours. That’s the hope. When we are introduced pretty early on, what we start to do is help the family think through. We’re like, “If it is a bit longer, how can we help you to get into the best situation that you can be for the long-term?” That’s a delicate conversation that you have to open up to with the family.TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

In that first moment, families are, in some ways, paralleling what Jess talked about. It’s the shock, the lack of information and the sense-making of something that you will have never seen in your life. Most families have never even heard about the agencies and the government that respond to these things because they shouldn’t. Let’s hope no one else does. It’s those initial moments of such shock, denial, and hope it’s over in a minute. Those feelings that Jess was going through, to some degree, her family was as well when they heard about it.

Let’s talk about the second phase. This is the captivity piece where you don’t know. You’ve made it through the first couple of days. You’re like, “Today is the day that something happens. How long am I going to be here?” You constantly have to think about this. You mentioned you were a woman in captivity in a country that doesn’t respect women and has a difficult time interacting with women. You were an American, which also ups the price, certainly, as we’ve seen. History shows us that over and over again. They’re constantly trying to move you. Generally, I don’t care if I’m offensive to them, they’re a bunch of idiots.

[bctt tweet=”If you’re in a place that lacks infrastructure and doesn’t have education and even basic necessities like clean water and food, then you’re not going to rise to your ultimate potential.” username=”talentwargroup”]

I’m surrounded by anywhere from 6 to 30 men from ages 9 to maybe 40s. They’re all sleep deprived, poverty-stricken, and high on amphetamines. It’s not a great mixture for anything.

It’s important to point out that in any kind of stressful or tragic situation, and I know in retrospect because I’ve heard from my family’s perspective that mirrors the same situation, there are moments that can be funny. I remember waking up one morning. We were 2 or 3 weeks in. There were three land cruisers parked over on the side of the camp. There were probably 15 or 20 guards keeping us in the camp, and there was all of this commotion around the vehicles. I realized after watching them for a minute that they had locked the keys in the getaway car.

I remember turning to Paul and looking at him. I said, “It’s official. We’ve been kidnapped by the world’s dumbest pirates.” It’s scary, too. If your life is hanging in the balance and is in the hands of people who lack some common sense, some judgment, and they’ve got heavily armed weapons, then that’s scary. I came to the realization I’d rather be held hostage by smart people than what was happening over here. I have my anecdotes, but in all seriousness, it’s dangerous.TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

We talk in most of our episodes about these nine characteristics of elite performance. They’re what Special Operations uses to recruit and assess talent. I talked to a lot of them. I mentioned we had Michael on. He gives a similar rendition of the folks that he was afforded the opportunity to spend some time with. I’ll put it that way. Drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, emotional strength, effective intelligence, and team ability make up these nine.

When I talked to Mike, I said, “In order to get through this situation, you have to exhibit all of these at various times.” In your case, it’s certainly no different. What did you lean on during this period of captivity? What did you constantly come back to that gave you the strength every day with the limited sleep that you had out in the field when you woke up and say, “I can make this another day,” also knowing that so many things are out of your control?

I would say two things. I’m the oldest of three. My mom had passed away the year before this happened. I felt a weight of responsibility to survive for my family because I knew that they needed me. My sister and my brother needed me. My dad and my husband needed me to survive. I respond very well to that, thinking that people depend on me, so that gives me strength.

I would say the other part would be my faith. I grew up in a religious household. While I would say my spiritual life has deviated from the way I was raised, I leaned heavily on my connection to my creator in those times. There were moments, if not hours and days, of uninterrupted introspection that I hold sacred to my own spiritual and personal development. I was able to connect with myself, in a way, in those moments that I would never have had an opportunity to otherwise. I had to surrender the outcome and control of the situation, give it to a higher power, and trust that I was going to be okay no matter what happened. That was a familiar way for me to operate because that’s how I had been raised. Those would be my two.

During this period of captivity, and Liz, I want to ask you about it, this is when the negotiation starts. You have the proof of life phone calls. Jess, you tell in the story that sometimes, they let you talk, and sometimes, they wouldn’t. You were generally there when they were making these phone calls. There are also a lot of background conversations going on. There are all these interludes and different people who are trying to get different pieces of the pie, certainly on the Somali side but then also all the government organizations.

During this period of time, can you talk a bit about the negotiation process and how that’s handled? Much isn’t known by the kidnapped. Yet, the family is dealing with a lot on that side. Most often, it’s an unreasonable request for some extraordinary amount of money that they don’t understand or doesn’t exist.

I should preface all this by saying that I’m not an expert in negotiations.

You guys don’t negotiate on that. I know that.

Hostage US stays out of the operational response to kidnappings. We provide support. However, that does encompass the support of families who are going through this clearly. The families are the ones who are on the phone with the kidnappers. They’re the ones who are trained ten minutes before the call or whatever it may be to be the negotiating power for that person.

You’re exactly right. Mike Scott Moore says it. His original ransom was wildly absurd and came down from there. It’s this new skill that the families have to learn immediately. They’re taught by the FBI how to be on the phone with hostage takers. Everything is recorded. They typically have FBI agents in the room with them offering guidance and things like that, but it is up to the family to be discussing with the kidnapper.

For us, for the Hostage US side, we take these moments as an opportunity to reengage with the family on the emotional side. We make sure that whenever the proof of life or the calls come in from the kidnappers, we are able to be there right after to debrief to ensure the family that no matter what they said, they did it right and they did it to the best of their ability at the time.TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

I know Jess and I have talked about that, too. You always do your best at that moment, knowing what you know at that moment. For the families, that’s always it. Our role, a lot of the time, is to make sure that the families understand that it’s an impossible task to be asked to do this from nothing. The conversations that they have with the kidnappers are the best to their ability.

Our role throughout the kidnapping is holding hands with the family and making sure that they know they’re not alone. The secrecy around these issues is so prevalent that it is such a burden for families. Imagine going through this, sitting here with us, and not being able to tell us that your wife is being held somewhere. It’s unimaginable in terms of that emotional burden.

Something Jess had said about how there are funny moments as a captive, there are fun and funny moments as a family, too. There’s also a weight of the guilt of having those funny moments, which is an interesting aspect of a multi-month, week, or years even of kidnapping. Families pull away from these social events that could honestly keep them going in terms of coping. They feel incredibly guilty when they know their loved one is being held in the bush to have a moment of joy, have some time to go out with friends, and things like that.

Oftentimes, when we do intake calls or have a relationship with a family, it’s honestly reminding them, “Your loved one would want you to have a moment to yourself. It’ll rejuvenate you. It’ll make you feel like you’re back in the game. You’ll be able to be your best self in responding to the cases as well.” I thought that it was interesting that you mentioned that. I’ve heard that from a lot of former captives as well, where you have to laugh. What else are you going to do at that moment?

The family needs to do that, too. Somehow, I got information through a phone call and knew that my family was in Nairobi. I remember, for days, thinking and praying for Erik, my husband. I was like, “Please take them on Safari.” My dad and my sister hadn’t been to Africa. I was like, “Please take them to all my favorite places,” and they did. They did exactly everything that I was hoping for. It was not the experience that everybody was hoping for their first time being in Africa. A baboon broke into my brother’s hotel room. They tell these stories. It also unites and you need that.

These situations end eventually in one of a couple of ways. Several end with the loss of the captive. Others end with the payment of ransom, as we saw in Mike’s case. Others end in rescue. There’s a defined set of criteria to launch a rescue. I give our leaders both the Military and political leaders or the elected leaders all the credit in the world. Sometimes, don’t envy them when they have to make these decisions. There has to be a risk to life. There have to be negotiations that are not progressing forward. There’s also that risk to health and well-being. Your case after 90 days was in that situation. Can you talk for a minute about those last couple of days emotionally and physically, how your condition was, and then President Obama’s decision to launch the strike force?

I was doing okay emotionally and mentally. I was trying to take things in two-week increments. I would be like, “I can’t think beyond fourteen days, so I’m going to focus on these fourteen days,” and getting through that.

Why fourteen?

Thirty felt too long. That felt scary to think of another 30 days out here. I knew it wasn’t going to be seven. At fourteen, I felt like, “Let’s try to find the middle ground here for once in your life.” I had gotten a urinary tract infection because I was living in the dirt. We weren’t taken to a house. We weren’t taken to a ship anywhere, nothing. We were sitting under a tree or a bush all day and sleeping out in the open at night. It was all of that and what that entails.

It was turning into a kidney infection because it was untreated. I had fevers. It was the whole nine yards. I had lots of pain. They didn’t care. My kidnappers needed me alive enough so that they could cash me in. They didn’t need me comfortable. I’m begging for a doctor. I know because I’d been down this road before. I’m prone to them. I had a kidney infection once, and I was hospitalized in Nairobi for a week. I knew I needed IVs, antibiotics, and a doctor.

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

“I knew I needed IV’s. I needed antibiotics. I needed a doctor.”

On January 16th, 2012, I had the sixth and final proof of life call. I didn’t know at the time that it was going to be my final one. My situation was different in the sense that I had a professional organization involved in the mix. It wasn’t my family who was on the phone. They did have professional hostage negotiators that were provided by the insurance company, so they were the ones taking the calls. They called her the family communicator who would carry the messages back. It was a woman named Alex that I would talk to. I told her my symptoms. I said, “I’m not trying to be overly dramatic here, but I’m in bad shape. If you guys don’t do something soon, I’m not sure I’m going to make it out of here.”

She carried the message to Erik, my husband. He then took it to my doctor who said, “You got to get her out of there. She’s got two weeks.” Maybe that was why it was the fourteen days. My doctor was like, “She’s going to die.” Erik took that information to the FBI and Matt Espenshade, who is the most amazing person on the planet and who was working on my case.

Erik would say that Matt and his colleague looked at each other and walked out of the room. He knew at that moment something was going to happen, but he didn’t know how long and what it was. It would be about 2 weeks or 10 days. It was January 25th, 2012. I went to bed out in the field as I’d done all the other nights before. I woke up a couple of hours after falling asleep because I was ill.

There were nine guys on the ground that night and no one stirred. At least one of them was always awake, but they were all passed out for some reason. I did what I needed to do and came back to my mat. I could hear something coming toward me in the bush, like glass breaking. The night erupted into gunfire and I thought, “I’m not going to make it out of here.” I thought we were being kidnapped by another group, but it turns out I was not being kidnapped. I was being rescued.

It would take me several hours to figure out and put all the pieces together. I had been rescued by SEAL Team Six. They were the elite guys who got Osama Bin Laden. It had been ordered by President Obama. It was the night of the State of the Union Address. After he delivered his speech, he called my dad to let him know that I was safe, I was alive, and I was coming home.

What do these words mean to you, “Jessica, this is the American military. We’ve come to take you home. You’re safe.”

It’s freedom. I was not exactly in my right mind when I heard those words. All I could say over and over again was, “You’re American?” That was the response that they got. For the whole 93 days I was out there, it never occurred to me that this could be a possibility. It never crossed my mind. I didn’t think anybody knew we were out there other than our organization. I had no idea the FBI was involved. I thought the only way we were going to get out was to pay a ransom. I knew the organization had insurance. I figured we were in it for a long haul. It’s been many years, but I still have a hard time conceptualizing what happened, why it happened, and how lucky I am. I think about it every day.

It makes me incredibly proud of the Special Operations community and of our leaders for making that decision. Hearing and reading those words made me emotional. I’ve never been part of a hostage rescue organization in Special Operations that I was a part of. It is not our core mission but knowing many people from that unit and from the units who do this and speaking on this show about what we use to recruit and assess these folks, they are the best. They are the most proficient at what they do. It makes me incredibly proud that we have folks who go out there every single day and do this work.

America made a commitment to our citizens that few other countries have, and that is that we will come to get you. There are a couple of commitments that we’ve made. 1) We will come to get you. 2) We will hunt you down if you are the ones who did this. Those are factors when you talk about the people, the mission and the commitment that we have as a nation that set us apart and truly do make this country the greatest country in the world.

[bctt tweet=”America made a commitment to our citizens that very few other countries have made. And that is, “We will come get you.”” username=”talentwargroup”]

I would say when you’re in a hostage situation, it is a fortunate thing to belong to a country that will stop at nothing if it can. Especially working in a volunteer capacity with Hostage US, I am in the company of many people who have not been the beneficiaries of the same circumstances that I have for reasons that I am not privy to. There’s so much at play that’s so much bigger than I can ever have the capacity to understand. From my understanding, all of the stars have to be so aligned in order for a rescue operation’s wheels to be set in motion and for it to be successful. Many things can go wrong. Not only can the hostage be lost, but the rescuers as well.

I’m so lucky that I can sit here, be here, be alive, be well, and talk about this. I can also sit here and know that there wasn’t any loss of life on the American side. I don’t think I would’ve been able to recover as well as I have been able to if I had known that somebody had given their life for me. It’s the understanding that there was a willingness to do so.

They didn’t even know you.

It is beyond comprehension.

Let’s talk about reintegration and coming back from that. What did that process look like for you? I know you had to go through the process. They sent you to Djibouti. How was it coming home, back to the US and your family?

I would say that the coming home part is the hardest part. It is something that I’ve been very committed to messaging with Hostage US. I call it surviving survival. There’s a book written by a journalist named Laurence Gonzalez. He wrote a book called Surviving Survival. It is mainly case studies about people who’ve been in shipwrecks or shark attacks. There are no hostages in there. Maybe he’ll write a sequel. It was the first time I had come across anything that resonated with me. It was five years into my freedom.

The reintegration process is so difficult and so stressful. This is where Hostage US comes in and steps in for the former hostage. Many of us have ended up in these places where this happened to us because we’re doing work that we love. It’s very much connected to our purpose. I was not able to go back and continue my work. I lost my profession. I’m sure I could still teach, but I had no idea how I was going to do that. I lost my home. I had to leave Kenya, where I thought I was going to have this life and raise a family. My PTSD was so bad that I had to leave and relocate back to the US, which is not a bad thing. It was the right thing, but it was hard.

Many of us have major financial complications that take place while we’re in captivity. My student loans went into default and no one could get access to my accounts. It took me seven years to rebuild my credit because even after I came back, explained, and had letters from the FBI and all of that, there was no box for them to check to clear me of my default. I was stuck.

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

“For many of us we feel like we have to come back and we have to start all over.”

People can’t pay their taxes. They haven’t left passwords with their family members because no one thinks that they’re going to get kidnapped and be held for months, if not years. For many of us, we feel like we have to come back, start all over, and rebuild. Not only are you rebuilding a life that you’re supposed to be grateful for, but you didn’t know it was going to look this way. You’d spent a whole lifetime working to build another one that got taken away from you. You’re also strapped with PTSD, anxiety, depression, and financial problems. It’s not all sunshine and roses when you come back. It can be difficult. How do you relate to people?

My book is called Impossible Odds, but I always joke that the impossible odds were that I got pregnant with my son three weeks after the rescue. Here I am, a year out, pushing my kid at the playground or whatever. Talking about being a hostage by Somali pirates is not something that you talk about on the playground with the other moms. I couldn’t relate. Socially, there are a lot of complications. It’s taken me a long time. This is why I called my next book that’s coming out in January 2023, Deserts to Mountaintops. It’s its own kind of desert coming back if that makes sense.

TJP 88 | Hostage US

Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six

I want to talk about the book, but first, I want to ask Liz about the Hostage US involvement in this reintegration process. Jessica outlined a number of the challenges that are faced upon coming home. Where’s the organization plugging in and supporting?

Jess has been monumental in informing some of those support services. Unfortunately, you don’t want to be the case study ever. When she came back, she dove into helping us build up the services that we’re able to offer. The government mandate is to get people home. The support stops. There’s that huge massive gap that Jess is talking about where you want to be joyous because you came home. You are, but there’s an entire lifetime to rebuild. No matter how long you were taken, your life is completely turned upside down.

One of the supports we provide on the career side is an interesting thing Jess and I have been talking about for years. It is how do you go from being an international traveler or international worker to being forced to be back home in the US? We have resume reviewers who can help write explanations for a year or two gap in your resume because people will ask, “Why is there a gap in your resume?” You have to say, “I was held hostage for X amount of time.” The disbelief around it is serious. We have resume reviewer folks. We have career counselors. We have that on that side of the career spectrum, but then the finance. We’re building partnerships with credit bureaus so that when people are taken, we’re able to say, “Flag it for them. This is what’s happening. Can you freeze the credit?”

That’s crazy. This is a clerical error.

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

“The government mandate is to get people home…the support stops.”

They don’t because they have policies and procedures. Everybody is just doing their job.

I’m sure you got sick of hearing that. 

I am lucky. That was the major sticking point for me. I’ve heard horror stories of people’s financials almost ruined. Especially if you’ve had to pay a ransom, I thought about that a lot. I was like, “Who was going to sell their house?” I cannot explain to you how lucky I am.

The financial aspect of it is that initial hurdle and the physical aspects, but then, it’s refocusing your life, career, passion, and everything and how that’s going to look. We do the same thing we do with families. We walk with them through that process and get the support that they need throughout the entire journey.

What’s the focus of Hostage US going into 2023? You’re the executive director. I have to ask the question.

TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

“I’m really committed to supporting and empowering women to reclaim their voices.”

One of the big challenges in society is mental health. For our people, it is exacerbated tenfold, if more. We’re building new partnerships with mental health practitioners to be able to offer a bit of a different type of mental health. That’s resilience and coping skills so families can learn skills to help themselves and help take the next steps. We’re building therapeutic options as well in relationships with therapists and things like that.

What we want to focus on is the skill building for families because, ultimately, they’re taking on a second full-time job responding to the cases. Some people don’t want to necessarily add in another relationship of a therapist and that type of thing. How can we think about that in a more creative way? One of the solutions to that is teaching them skills to cope with it. That’s one of the big things.

We’re building out some support for the wrongful detention cases that we support, which is different than hostage cases. That could be another hour-long conversation. We’re seeing increases in wrongful detentions and countries recognizing that holding Americans is a political gain for them. Unfortunately, as we expect that to increase, we’re building capacity to support those families as well.

[bctt tweet=”We’re definitely seeing increases in wrongful detentions and countries recognizing that holding Americans is a political gain for them. So unfortunately, as we expect that to increase, we need to build the capacity to support victims’ families as well. ” username=”talentwargroup”]

Deserts to Mountaintops is coming out in January 2023. What are we going to look forward to? You’re coming back. You’re going to come back on and we’ll do a conversation about the book.

I talked about how it’s taken me ten years to rebuild little by little. I use the metaphor of hiking because my dad lives in the mountains and I’ve spent a lot of time hiking trails with him as part of my recovery. A large part of my story that I have come to understand and then reclaim is that this kidnapping wouldn’t have happened if I had listened to my intuition. I knew something was wrong. It was impending and I dismissed myself and my inner knowing. That’s culturally what I have been trained to do. As women, we’re very much conditioned to do that. I have pivoted. I am committed to supporting and empowering women to reclaim their voices.

TJP 88 | Hostage US

Deserts to Mountaintops: Our Collective Journey to (re)Claiming Our Voice

That is what this book is about. It’s an anthology. It’s 22 women’s stories of how they’ve reclaimed their voices through all kinds of hard and beautiful experiences. They’re strong, powerful voices. I’m proud of it because it also symbolizes, to me, a new beginning. It comes out on January 25th, 2023, which will be the eleven-year anniversary of my rescue. That’s significant for me because it is a mountaintop that sometimes I didn’t think I was going to get to. This has been hard, but it’s also been worth it. I’m proud.

I look forward to it.


I’m going to ask you both this question I ask everybody. It is the best question we have. The Jedburghs of World War II had to do three things every day to be effective. We can call them foundations or habits. They had to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. If they did those things with the utmost precision, then they could focus their attention on more complex challenges that came their way. What do you do, each of you, every day with those three things that set the conditions for success in your world? You could choose who starts.

[Liz] I’ll go first. Hydrate, for sure. The second thing is pretty much every day, I focus on where my expertise ends and where I know somebody who’s smarter at what I need to be doing. I do a lot of reaching out to the smarter people in the world and learning from them. I know a little bit about a lot of things and I like that. I like to reach out to the experts and always remain in that humble zone of knowing that there’s always a smarter person. The last I’m going to take from the team is to overcommunicate and ensure that what you’re saying and the way you’re saying it makes sense to others and be self-aware in that way.

[bctt tweet=”Always remain in that humble zone of knowing that there’s always a smarter person.” username=”talentwargroup”]

I love those.

You’re on the spot.

[Jessica] I call it my sacred start. I’m committed and routine about my mornings. I get up around 5:30 so I can have an hour of time before my children start demanding breakfast. In that sacred start, it would be my prayer time. I write, journal, visualize, and do my affirmations. I gratitude. I employ that in the morning and at night if I don’t fall asleep first. That’s more than three, but those are critical to my everyday functioning. For me, that’s how I’ve been able to heal.TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

The sacred start, I like it. Hydrate, know what you’re good at, and communicate. I didn’t get a chance to say it before we started. I was going to tell you, Liz, but I want you to know that I would love to do whatever we can to push the message of Hostage US on the show. Please, let me know whatever it takes and how we can partner with you to push the message out. Please, think of us as an outlet for all of your initiatives. We can certainly talk more about it. I would love to be able to do that. I appreciate what you’re doing. It is so impactful.

Thank you. I appreciate that.

When I spoke with Mike, I had to assign him. At the end of these conversations, I take these nine characteristics that I spoke about and that we talked about here. I pick one and say that my guest and their story exemplify one of these based on what we talked about. With Mike, I looked at him and said, “There is no way I can pick one here. You didn’t get through without all of it.” The organization itself and yourself, Jess, continue to exemplify all of those. I have no way that I’d be able, at the end of this, to say that one is greater than the other. I am inspired by reading your book. I look forward to the next one.TJP - EP #088 Hostage US with former hostage Jessica Buchannan and Hostage US Executive Director Liz Cathcart

Going through these ordeals, we do talk about effective intelligence a lot, but it changes us. You’ve talked a lot about that here and becoming a much different person through this process. Understanding and knowing that motivates and empowers me to think about the experiences that others have gone through in their life.

Thinking about your rescue continues to instill in me pride in this nation and my brothers in arms who continue to serve and do this work. Hostage US as an organization, their commitment to our people and citizens, to be there, and all those who support the organization is tremendously impactful. I appreciate you spending some time with me. 

Thanks so much. It’s good to be here.

Thank you.


Important Links

To Top of Webpage