Where have all the flags gone?

Tue, 10/24/2006 - 4:41pm
By: The Citizen


There is an article in the September issue of The American Legion magazine written by Debra Burlingame, sister of Captain Charles F. Burlingame III, pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed at the Pentagon Sept. 11, 2001. She is now the director of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation.

In the article, she notes that she misses all the flags that waved everywhere in the weeks and months following that awful day in 2001. She laments the fact that now, five years later, the flags have disappeared.

“After five years without another 9/11-style assault, a sense of security has led some in this country to relax their resolve,” she writes. “Virtually every program deployed by the government to help ‘connect the dots’ has come under attack,” she says, by fellow Americans.

I know how she feels, and so do thousands of other servicemen who served in Beirut, Lebanon between 1982 and 1984. And so do their families, and very close friends. They know how quickly Americans forget the lessons of history. They know how quickly patriotic fervor of today can turn to apathetic blindness of tomorrow.

On Oct. 23, 1983, terrorists fired what many believe to be the first shot in the War on Terror in Beirut when they truck-bombed a U.S. military barracks and killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. They and thousands of other American servicemen were there as “peacekeepers,” a new and undefined mission. Politics kept them from doing the things that they normally would have done in a hostile environment. Terrorists took advantage of that decision, just as they took advantage of our open society on Sept. 11, 2001.

And in both cases people died because of that lapse of judgment. In both cases Americans were horrified and distraught and angry, for a while. Then life got back to normal. Bills had to be paid, kids had to be taken to soccer, there was church and school and work. There wasn’t another attack. So, maybe it was just a bad day.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There were many bad days before Oct. 23, 1983, and there have been many after. Terror has been with us a long time, and some Americans continually turn a naive eye and hope it won’t happen again.

Look at the record. As far back as 1968 hijackings began to fill the news, such as the incident in July that year when members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an El Al plane to Rome. November that same year 12 people died in a bombing at a Jerusalem market.

These types of incidents multiplied during the late 60’s into the ‘70s and ‘80s. The high-profile 1972 case where 11 Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by terrorists associated with the PLO was a strong indicator of how serious terrorism had become. But still the world lulled back into complacency.

Sadly, even in Beirut where awareness was as heightened as anywhere in the world, things happened. In 1983 and 1984 the U.S. embassy in Beirut was bombed three separate times — April and October of 1983 and again in September of 84 with a total of 339 people, mostly Americans, killed.

The list goes on and on — The cruise ship Achillo Laura taken by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, Pan Am Flight 103 blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, nerve gas in Tokyo and the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. And on and on ...

Anybody who thinks the War on Terror can be a quick and clean, surgical conflict is simply not seeing the lessons of history. The Cold War took 50 years to conclude; this one may take longer.

On Oct. 23, 2006, people will gather at the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, N.C. At 6 a.m. a handful will have a candlelight service. Service members and family of the 270 men killed in Beirut and three killed in Grenada will read the names of their loved ones on the granite wall there amidst the Carolina pines. Later in the morning, there will be generals, mayors and other dignitaries who, along with hundreds of service members and family, will gather around the Beirut Memorial. Military bands will play. Speeches will be made. A wreath will be placed in memory of those killed. Tears will be shed.

These people will never forget. This event has happened every year for 23 years. Sons and daughters of these heroes who were mere infants, or not even born, gather in their name. There are now grandchildren of those killed who want to know more. They have so many questions. There are so few answers. But rest assured, they will never forget. There is a thread that runs through them all, connecting them, whether they know it or not.

An organization called the Beirut Veterans of America made a pledge in 1992. They adopted a motto: “The First Duty Is To Remember.” Prior to that there was a group of family members of the deceased who formed The Beirut Connection, as a means of support for one another. Individuals in the city of Jacksonville, N.C., 23 years ago pledged to hold a Remembrance each year. Together, over the years, individuals in these groups have formed the thread that binds the past to the present to the future.

In July and August of 2006, U.S. Marines again went ashore in Beirut, this time to evacuate U.S. and foreign national citizens to safety as unrest once again overtook that land. Ironically, the Marines who hit the beach there were in the same unit that sustained the heaviest casualties in the 1983 barracks bombing: 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which some time ago adopted the title “The Beirut Battalion.”

With bittersweet emotions Beirut veterans of an earlier era watched as the newest Beirut veterans hit the beach and were baptized in the waters of the Mediterranean as they had been 23 years earlier. When these “Beirut Battalion” Marines come home later this year after more than six months afloat, their predecessors, who will hail them as the newest Beirut Veterans, will be there to greet them.

And the thread of this Beirut saga will take another stitch in time, connecting yet another two or three generations. On Oct. 23 this year, take a moment sometime during the day, and Remember.

Editor’s note: the author is a retired Marine who served in Beirut in 1983 and is the founding vice president of the Beirut Veterans of America. He is now Peachtree City’s director of Parks, Recreation and Library Services.

login to post comments