FLINT, Mich. (AP) — A former U.S. Marine recently released from Iran in a prisoner-swap deal returned to his home state of Michigan on Thursday, saying shortly after his airplane landed that he had endured "a very long road."
Amir Hekmati, who spent 4½ years in an Iranian prison, emerged from the plane at Flint's Bishop International Airport to waiting reporters and well-wishers.
"Despite all of the difficulties, thank God, thanks to everyone's support — everybody from the president, Congressman (Dan) Kildee, everyday Americans — I'm standing here healthy, tall, and with my head held high," Hekmati said in brief remarks. "I'm glad to be here, and I appreciate everyone's support."
Hekmati kept his comments brief, and said he would share more about his experiences later.
He had been at the U.S. military's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany since his weekend release, and had recounted Tuesday how disbelief turned to joy when he and three fellow Americans realized they were being freed.
Asked about the time in prison, Hekmati said, "it wasn't good," but that his Marine training helped sustain him.
Kildee, a Flint-area Democrat who traveled to Germany with Hekmati's relatives and visited with him there, told reporters at the airport that this was "Amir's day."
"I'm just glad this day came," Kildee said. "Sometimes it felt like it might not."
Hekmati was born in Arizona and raised in Michigan. His family lives near Flint, which has also drawn attention lately because of a drinking water crisis involving elevated lead levels in children.
Hekmati says he went to Iran to visit family and spend time with his ailing grandmother. He was detained in August 2011 on espionage charges. After his arrest, family members say they were told to keep the matter quiet.
Convicted by an Iranian court of spying and sentenced to death in 2012, Hekmati was later retried and given a 10-year sentence on a lesser charge.
"I was at a point where I had just sort of accepted the fact that I was going to be spending 10 years in prison, so this was a surprise and I just feel truly blessed to see my government do so much for me and the other Americans," Hekmati had told reporters outside Landstuhl.
Hekmati and his family deny any wrongdoing, and say his imprisonment included physical and mental torture and long periods of solitary confinement in a tiny cell.
He has said he feels lucky and humbled by the support he received from those campaigning for his release. He also has expressed gratitude to President Barack Obama, the U.S. Congress and his other supporters, reserving special thanks for the U.S. Marine Corps.