October 23rd - Not Just Another Day

For those who where there, like Randy (the author), October 23rd is not just another day.This coming Wednesday October 23 is a date that most Americans will catalog as just another hump day--a day to go to work, school, the grocery store--a day like any other.

But for tens of thousands of American servicemen and women, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins and other family members, it is a day that lives in infamy.  It is a day their hearts will be torn out yet again.  For them, it holds significance greater than what we all felt on September 11, 2001.

On October 23, 1983, 30 years ago, Islamic extremists unleashed the first volley in what has now morphed into the Global War on Terrorism when they truck-bombed barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

The barracks were occupied by nearly 400 American servicemen, mostly Marines. Terrorists planned the attack for a Sunday morning at 6:20 a.m. when they knew the highest number of men would be in the building. They murdered 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers and scores more were seriously injured.

In addition to these 241 men killed, an additional 29 men, mostly Marines, were killed and dozens more injured over the course of nearly 2 years that the U.S. was part of a multi-national peacekeeping force sent to Beirut as “Peacekeepers” from 1982-84.

For math-challenged folks like me, that’s a total of 270 mostly-young men whose lives were ended very prematurely, who were taken from their loved ones way too early and whose deaths have left a hole in lives that will never be adequately filled.

In a simultaneous attack, terrorists killed 58 French troops and injured scores more with an identical truck bomb at their barracks in Beirut. Their families will share equal grief.

The entire story of why America joined France, Italy and Britain under the U.N. flag to be peacekeepers in that tumultuous land is long and complicated and would take volumes to credibly cover, certainly more than appropriate for this blog.

In summary, the decision was made, perhaps, with the best of intentions; sadly, tragically, the facts on the ground did not reflect those good intentions. Other forces in the region took advantage of those good intentions. We paid the price.

I tell you this because I was there, I lived it and I survived when for all intents and purposes I should not have. I, along with hundreds of others like me, have made it a mission in our lives to ensure in any way we can that Americans and the world do not forget these men.

And so, I tell you this, here.

I tell you because it is important to know that the Global War on Terror did not start on Sept. 11, 2001; or in the first Trade Center bombing in 1993; or in any of the dozens and dozens of terrorist attacks world-wide in recent decades.

The Beirut bombing was the first major, deliberate attack on U.S. citizens carried out by a state-sponsored (Iran) terrorist group (Hezbollah) with the now-documented purpose of influencing Western political decisions.

Within four months of the attack, all Western forces pulled out of Lebanon. Terrorists decided that this tactic worked; they continued to refine it and export it until Sept. 11, 2001, when commercial aircraft were used instead trucks.

Many wonder: had we stood our ground in 1983, would the 9-11 bombings have occurred? A rhetorical question now, perhaps.

I also tell you this because it is important to know that these men did not die in vain. They died in perhaps the noblest of human endeavors – to help others.

Their mission was ill-defined; peacekeeping--which had no cogent definition, especially in Beirut at that time. Their rules of engagement were ultra-restrictive; no loaded weapons, shoot only if you can confirm who is shooting at you and only after getting permission from higher headquarters.

In this fish bowl, with the world watching, these young men--warriors by trade--were asked to be ambassadors; to fly the flag, be a “presence,” promote peace in a region that historically has defied it.

And they were doing the job; they were being effective. Cease fires were in place and peace talks were under way; shop owners in Beirut were opening for business, people were walking the streets, children were smiling again. But this stability did not suit the purposes of rogue nations and their proxies, thus the attacks were deemed necessary.

These young men, who came from towns and cities like those served by PRB , were doing the best they knew how under all-but-impossible conditions; and they were succeeding.

They demonstrated conduct and wisdom far beyond their years and their discipline under intense artillery, rocket and small arms fire was beyond impressive. They gave hope where hope was a distant memory.

They were victims of their own success.

So, Weekenders, as you make your plans for next week, please make a note on Oct. 23 to stop a moment and give thanks for the loved ones you have in your life; because in Jacksonville, N.C., tears will be shed once again for loved ones who never came back from Beirut.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Beaufort, S.C.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.