BY RANDY GADDO, US VETERAN OF BEIRUT
On October 25, 1983, in Beirut, Lebanon, then Vice-President George W. Bush, Sr., walked the perimeter of what was at the time called the worst terrorist attack on Americans ever.
Two days earlier, on October 23, a dump truck loaded with 2,000 pounds of dynamite strapped around gas cylinders was driven into a four-story barracks filled with sleeping Marines and sailors. The ensuing explosion would topple the building into a one and a half story pile of rubble, twisted metal and concrete. After weeks of digging through the rubble, the final death toll was 241 men.
Vice President Bush was the highest-ranking government official to personally tour the aftermath. I was a Marine Corps photojournalist who, by chance, happened to be the only person with a camera when he did it. I stayed very close to him, and got some very tight shots. I saw something in his eyes that day, and captured it on film, that has stayed with me over the span of 18 years that has passed since then.
What I saw was that he really, deeply understood what terrorism is. It hurt him to the soul, and I could see it coming through his eyes. I also think he understood the awesome responsibility to be the Commander-in-Chief of the United States armed forces and send men and women into harms way.
I gained a lifetime of respect for Mr. Bush that day. He dared to put himself in the line of fire to come and see for himself the carnage that terrorism can bring. I personally believe that, when he became President, his actions during Desert Shield/Storm were directly affected by his visit to Beirut. He ensured that his military was given clear guidance, authority to carry out their mission, and the weapons and equipment support that ensured overwhelming superiority on the battlefield. The results speak for themselves.
It is interesting and ironic that now, 18 years later, his son is waging a war on terrorism that probably involves many of the same terrorists who were involved in the Beirut bombing. As an American, I have great confidence in George W. Bush, Jr., because I believe his father is in the background, giving guidance. And I choose to believe that as George Jr. was growing up, he absorbed a healthy respect for the duties as Commander-in-Chief.
From 1982 to 1984, thousands of service members, mostly Marines and sailors, were assigned to Beirut as part of a multi-national peacekeeping force. They were sent there as "Peacekeepers," a dubious title in a land that had not seen much peace for centuries. For two years they attempted to carry out their peacekeeping mission of maintaining a forceful presence, but not look too offensive in nature; a dubious mission for a force that trains to engage in offensive military actions. Interestingly, in 1958 Marines also went into Beirut with a similar mission, but with much less disastrous results.
The full story of the military mission in Beirut is worthy of a book, but the point here is that on Oct. 23, 1983, terrorism touched the lives of hundreds of families, friends and fellow service members. In taking the lives of 241 brothers, sons, fathers, and friends, terrorists created a cell of people who have sworn never to forget.
In 1992, a small group was formed, called the Beirut Veterans of America, whose members included servicemen and women who had served in Beirut either in 1958 or 1982-84. A related group had also formed prior to that, called the Beirut Connection, whose members are families and friends of those killed in action on that day.
The groups have grown to a combined membership of over 600 people. Their motto: "The First Duty Is To Remember," has been the glue to hold them together through the years. Each year, on Oct. 23, a memorial service is held at Camp Lejeune, N.C. at the Beirut Memorial there. Families and friends of those killed in action on that day go to remember, to honor their memory. This year, as they once again honor their dead, they will also mourn the loss of more terrorist victims; and they will also pledge anew their resolve to not let the lives of their heroes go in vain.
Make no mistake; all those men who died at the hands of a terrorist in 1983 are heroes, just as all those who died on Sept. 11, 2001, are heroes. The fact that they died at the hands of a cowardly foe makes it no less so.
The difference is that in 1983, the Marines, sailors and soldiers were on duty, in a war zone, and the risk of death or injury was an accepted possibility. On Sept. 11, 2001, the people who died were civilians from 80 different countries who were carrying out their lives in a free and open society. They weren't combatants; but we all are now, because America and the rest of the civilized world is at war with terrorists.
BVA and Beirut Connection members have girded for this battle since 1983. In their hearts, I think members knew that terrorism would one day hit home for the rest of America as it did for us in 1983. For them, the event in 1983, though smaller in scale, was no less horrendous than what occurred in 2001. They have been fighting their own war on terrorism since Oct. 23, 1983, when terrorism became a personal issue.
Now it's a personal issue for the rest of the world too. President Bush continues his strong leadership in this crisis with a 92 percent approval rate from the American public. Personally, it comforts me to know that the president's father is behind him as well, providing him guidance based on personal experience in these matters.
I believe I can speak for all BVA members in saying that we stand behind his efforts too. Operation Enduring Freedom will be a long and arduous war, and will require the prolonged dedication and support of the American public. We will have to sacrifice some personal freedoms and conveniences, but it is a small contribution to make if terrorism can be squashed.
The author is a retired Marine officer who was assigned to Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, and was on site when the truck bomb hit the barracks. He is the founding vice-president of the Beirut Veterans of America.