Panetta Pays Tribute to Fallen Sailors in Tripoli
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
TRIPOLI, Libya, Dec. 17, 2011 Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta paused during his historic visit here to lay a wreath on the graves of U.S. sailors lost aboard the USS Intrepid more than 200 years ago.
Panetta, the first defense secretary to set foot in Libya, walked quietly into the tranquil courtyard overlooking Tripoli Harbor, where about two dozen gravestones surrounded an olive tree.
Flanked by Army Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, the secretary paused in front of one of the gravesites to bow his head in reflection and prayer. After a moment of silence, he crossed his heart and placed one of his personal coins on the gravestone’s base.
The secretary said he felt honored to pay respects to heroes of the United States’ first overseas wars, interred in Tripoli’s Protestant cemetery.
The crew aboard the Intrepid was on a mission Sept. 4, 1804, to destroy pirate ships moored in Tripoli harbor during the First Barbary War when their vessel exploded.
Navy Lt. Richard Somers, its commander, and his dozen officers and sailors were killed.
“These brave sailors from the Intrepid, who died in the service of their country, have our nation’s enduring respect and gratitude,” the secretary said in a statement released after today’s visit.
“Having sailed into harm’s way to secure our nation’s interests, they volunteered for a dangerous mission and paid the ultimate price,” he said. “Their courage, and that of their fallen sailors and Marines, have forever emblazoned the shores of Tripoli in our nation’s conscience.”
The remains were moved to their current location in 1949, and the site underwent a major renovation that was completed in January, just before Libya’s revolution began.
Panetta expressed appreciation that despite differences in U.S.-Libyan relations over the years, the Libyan people have maintained the cemetery with the respect and honor it deserves and designated it a protected historic property.
The United States looks forward to working with the Libyans “to ensure that this very special place remains an honored and protected landmark for both of our nations,” he said.
Panetta called the Libyan people’s efforts to restore the cemetery “a symbol of the values we share, including an appreciation of the need to honor those who have sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of a cause greater than ourselves.”
He reflected on the thousands of Libyans who gave their lives for Libya’s liberation as well. “They sacrificed so that Libya and her people could have a new era of hope and opportunity,” he said. “Because of their sacrifices, the torch of freedom burns brightly here in Libya.”
The 2012 Defense Authorization Act, as passed by the House in December, includes a provision that requires the Defense Department to begin the process of identifying and returning Somers and his sailors to the United States.
Specifically, the bill instructs the secretaries of defense and the Navy to report back to Congress on the feasibility of recovering and positively identifying the missing commandos.