Vets of '83 Beirut Bombing View Current Ops With Pride, Resolve
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 21, 2006 Watching TV coverage of Marines from their former unit helping Americans leave Beirut churns up a host of emotions for former Marines who served there when a barracks was bombed in October 1983.
Marine Gen. P.X. Kelley (left) and Col. Tim Geraghty (right) take then-Vice President George H.W. Bush on a tour around the site of the Beirut barracks bombing two days after the Oct. 23, 1983, explosion killed 241 servicemembers, mostly Marines, at the Beirut International Airport. Photo by Randy Gaddo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Randy Gaddo was a Marine staff sergeant with the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit serving in Lebanon when a terrorist attack in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 1983, claimed the lives of 241 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers. Hundreds more were wounded or disabled when a truck laden with the equivalent of 20,000 pounds of TNT detonated on the ground floor of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Battalion Landing Team barracks.
Four days after the attack, then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan praised the fallen troops for their sacrifice in helping bring a better future to the people of Lebanon. "We cannot and will not dishonor them ... and the sacrifices they've made by failing to remain as faithful to the cause of freedom and the pursuit of peace as they have been," Reagan said in a broadcast to the American people.
Yesterday, Gaddo and his former boss in Beirut, retired Maj. Bob Jordan, juggled their emotions as they watched televised images of Marines and sailors making good on that promise. Marines returned to Beirut this week for the first time in more than 20 years to help U.S. citizens caught in the crossfire between Hezbollah terrorists and Israeli air and artillery forces.
Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit -- the new name for Gaddo's and Jordan's former unit -- ferried some 1,200 Americans from a Beirut beach to the USS Nashville yesterday.
Gaddo said he felt immensely proud watching the Marines carry out their mission. "They're going in there to bring people out and following on what we established there," he said from his Peachtree City, Ga., home. "It makes you feel pretty proud."
"We're in awe," Jordan said of the Marines. "These young men and women are so professional, so well-trained and so well-equipped. ... Their motivation is so high."
Jordan said he's particularly proud that Marines from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment -- the first and last unit he served with during a career that spanned almost 30 years -- are conducting the mission.
But Gaddo acknowledged that he's also concerned about the Marines' well-being. "Those of us who were there can picture exactly what the Marines are seeing," he said.
He remembers all too clearly the events of a beautiful Sunday morning 23 years ago when a terrorist truck bomb exploded in his barracks building.
Gaddo, 31 at the time, was a photojournalist from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., attached to the 24th MEU for the peacekeeping mission in Beirut. He had awakened early to process some film in a makeshift photo lab he'd set up on the third floor of the barracks building. After that, Gaddo had planned to join other Marines in laying plastic sheets and sandbags over a bunker to prepare it for the upcoming rainy season.
But before tackling the day's work, Gaddo headed to the command operations center in a tent about 250 yards away from the barracks to grab a quick cup of coffee. He figures it was that decision that ultimately saved his life. "Another three minutes and I would have been in the (barracks) building," he said.
From the command tent, Gaddo heard M-16 rifle fire, then a blast that threw him back 6 feet from where he was standing. "It was an amazing concussion," he said. "It was like somebody hit me with a two-by-four. I could feel my face being pushed back as the shock wave approached."
Dazed, Gaddo looked over the two- or three-story building that stood between him and the barracks building and saw a big mushroom cloud rising from the area. The leaves had been blown off all the trees. Gaddo realized that he could see the air traffic control tower of Beirut International Airport -- a landmark the barracks building should have blocked from his vantage point.
Suddenly the realization sunk in: the barracks had been hit. "What had normally been a four-story building was down to a story and a half of rubble," he recalled. "The dust was all still rising and it started to all become clear."
Gaddo and his fellow Marines sprung into action, grabbing cots and litters and running toward the building to search for survivors. They dodged incoming sniper fire and worked amid the fires throughout the area, some sparked by exploding ammunition that had been in the barracks building.
"There was a lot of chaos. We were all in shock," he said.
The rescuers struggled to get a grip on their emotions: anger at their attackers, sadness for those lost, and for some, guilt that their lives had been spared when others' had not.
"You go through a whole range of emotions," Gaddo said. "We lost a lot of Marines that day."
Gaddo, Jordan and fellow veterans continue to remember those Marines through the Beirut Veterans of America, a group dedicated to ensuring that servicemembers killed in Beirut aren't forgotten.
As founding vice president of the group, Gaddo is busy planning the "23rd Remembrance" event Oct. 21 to 23 in Jacksonville, N.C., home of the Beirut Memorial. The memorial includes a wall with the names of all those willed during the peacekeeping mission in Lebanon from 1982 to 1984.
The event will include a candlelight vigil at 6 a.m. on Oct. 23, when all the names on the wall will be read aloud. "Reading their names aloud ensures that these men are remembered for their courage and their sacrifice," said Jordan, the group's founding president.
Jordan expressed hope that Americans will remember not just those lost, but also the lessons of Oct. 23, 1983. "We were being tested, and we failed the test," he said of the U.S. response to the attack.
Jordan calls the attack on the Marine barracks "the first skirmish in ... the battle against terror" and said it's critical that the United States not falter in its war on terror.
The United States must work with Muslims to counter the threat Islamic extremists present, he said. "We need to understand that these people believe in what they are doing" and won't stop until they re-establish an extremist state under a supreme Islamic ruler, he said of the terrorists.
"We need to understand that they are willing to die for it and willing to kill us to achieve it," he said.