Beirut, 1983 — Our first duty is to remember

On Oct. 23 this year, at 6 a.m. Eastern time, the vast majority of America was sleeping snugly in warm, dry beds. But in Jacksonville, N.C., a group of 120 or so people gathered in misting rain to pay homage to deceased men who had been their sons, fathers, brothers, husbands, comrades-in-arms, relatives or friends.

It is a sacred ritual that has been repeated every year on the same date, same time, for the past 24 years.

Those who gathered under the North Carolina pines held small candles that projected a dim glow onto the wall in front of them. On the wall, better known as the Beirut Memorial, were 273 names etched into the granite. Several columns of names identify American servicemen killed in action during a two-year “peacekeeping” mission in Beirut, Lebanon between 1982 and 1984.

One or more people stood in front of each column of names, and in turn read every one of the names on the wall. Often others in the crowd would murmur in unison a name as it was read, because that person had been — still is — someone special to them. They believe that by saying the name, for a fleeting moment, the deceased Marine, soldier or sailor is once again among us. The memory of the supreme sacrifice they made for their fellow countrymen is kept alive.

Oct. 23 is significant because on that day in 1983 at 6:20 a.m., 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers were killed when a terrorist truck-bomber detonated more that 12,000 pounds of military-grade high explosives. The terrorist crashed the truck into the atrium of the four-story building, instantly reducing it to a story and a half of twisted concrete and iron. FBI investigators deemed it the largest non-nuclear explosion they had ever studied.

Looking back, it was a harbinger of future terrorist actions leading up to the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001. Many believe the Beirut bombing was the opening volley in the ongoing Global War on Terrorism.

There was then, and remains, debate over the political reasons for America being in Lebanon, just as we debate the reasons for being in Iraq and Afghanistan now. But the people in front of the Beirut Memorial at 6 a.m. don’t ponder the whys or why-nots. That is for another time, another place.

Now, their only focus is remembering each of these American men who volunteered to place themselves in harm’s way so that the United States remains a place where we can freely debate our differences.

They remember who these men were, what their ambitions were, what they hoped to do with their lives. There are children at the wall who never knew their father because they were too young, or not yet born, when he was killed. They now bring their children because they want them to know that their grandfather was someone special, a hero who died in the line of duty.

Later in the morning of the 23rd, there is a more formal ceremony attended by several hundred people. It features a military band, VIPs, speeches by generals and special guests, presentations of commemorative wreaths, other ceremonial traditions and media coverage. It is all fitting and proper, much appreciated by all and is promised to continue in perpetuity.

But for the families, friends and comrades who lost loved ones whose names are on the wall, the 6 a.m. candlelight service is the more meaningful of the two. There are no speeches, no bands, no cameras. Just a core group of people who have vowed to continue coming back each year until they no longer can.

And there will come a time when they can’t. Their hope is that their children, and their children’s children, can and will.

It would be a sad day in American history if Oct. 23 came and went and nobody showed up at the Beirut Memorial. However, the Beirut Veterans of America was formed in 1992 to ensure that doesn’t come to pass. The 1,000-member, fraternal organization’s motto is “Our First Duty Is To Remember,” and it is the focus of their existence.

The city of Jacksonville, N.C., home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, has also pledged to continue the tradition. History will tell whether these pledges can be kept.

The Beirut Memorial is perpetually watched over by a lone statue of a U.S. Marine dressed in battle gear, appropriately named the Guardian of Freedom. He is placed in the center of the memorial, guarding a break in the wall. The symbolism is significant.

He walks eternal guard duty at that break in the wall, his stony eyes watching over the names on the wall; names that are stark reminders of a time when America let her guard down and exposed herself and her military to a compromising situation.

It happened on Oct. 23, 1983. It happened on Sept. 11, 2001. Actually, some of the same terrorists were involved in both. In fact, it happened in 1995 when terrorists first hit the Twin Towers. It happened on Nov. 4, 1979 when Iranian terrorists took Americans hostage. It’s been happening since the 1960s when terrorists first began hijacking aircraft and holding hostages.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It has taken different forms, but it has been rearing its ugly head for more than five decades.

Hopefully, for the survival of our country and the ideal of freedom, one of these days, as a nation, we’ll collectively wake up and learn from our mistakes.

[The author is a retired U.S. Marine who was in Beirut at the time of the barracks bombing. He is founding vice president of the Beirut Veterans of America and is currently the national president. Gaddo also is the director of leisure services for Peachtree City, Ga.]

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Submitted by amg2022 on Tue, 10/30/2007 - 10:58pm.

A big thank you to all our servicemen out there, as well as Mr. Gaddo. All of your duties are greatly appreciated.


Submitted by Thomas O-Toole on Tue, 10/30/2007 - 10:45pm.

Thank You to you and all our veterans for all that you have done and continue to do. My family has attended the Patriot Day activities you have put on over the last two years and it has made us proud and grateful to be Americans. I am grateful for the opportunity to show my children who the real heroes of our country are. As you have so eloquently stated above(much better than I can) it is the sacrifice of American heroes like those men and women made on that day in October that allow us to have the freedoms and privileges that we enjoy today. We must remember them and continue to honor them and the Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Soldiers that continue to put their lives on the line today to maintain our freedom. I am writing tonight from Camp Lejeune, NC where I am providing training and support to the elementary and secondary schools aboard the base that the sons and daughters of our current heroes attend. The welcome home messages that adorn the gates around this base give comfort to our returning heroes and inspire others like myself to remember and deeply appreciate the sacrifices our military makes on a daily basis for us. We must not forget our heroes past and present and should honor them by exercising our rights and responsibilities as American citizens. Thank you Randy and all others who have served our country. My family will not forget!
Thomas O'Toole
Peachtree City Council Candidate, Post 1

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