By Randy Gaddo, the director of Parks, Recreation and Library Services for Peachtree City, Ga. (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 23/10/08):
I remember that the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, in Beirut was pleasant and sunny; there was a light breeze, and it was very quiet. Sunday was generally a day of rest. We were usually given an extra ration of sleep and then a treat, omelets, at the barracks mess hall. We had no more omelets after Oct. 23.
I had gotten up early because I had work to do. As a Marine staff sergeant and a photographer, I had been sent to Beirut to document the deployment of the troops that were going to try to bring peace to Lebanon after years of civil war. That morning I had eight rolls of film to develop and print before I helped the rest of my unit waterproof our bunker, a necessity because we were heading into the rainy season. I had set up a makeshift photo lab in the only place we could find running water, a third floor bathroom in the barracks, although I didn’t sleep in the building.
At 6 a.m. I was halfway over to the barracks from my tent, and I remember the birds were singing louder than I’d ever heard them, maybe because for a change there was no distant sound of artillery in the mountains. I decided I needed a cup of coffee before I went to work, so I turned back to the combat operations center and got a cup and sat down at my little field desk to plan my day.
About 20 minutes later I heard two or three shots from an M-16. Before I had time to wonder, I felt a hot rush of air on my face, like a blast furnace. Then I heard and felt a thunderous thud and was lifted up and tossed back several feet like a rag doll.
I was dazed, but fortunately I had my helmet and flak jacket on, and they absorbed a lot of the shock wave. My first thought was that a rocket or artillery round must have hit close by, so I went outside expecting to see a smoldering hole outside the tent. What I did see is something I’ll never forget.
Over in the direction of the barracks, where I’d been headed 20 minutes earlier, I saw a mushroom cloud rising several hundred feet in the air. I took off running toward it, and I remember that as I rounded a corner of a building I saw that all the leaves had been stripped from every tree and bush in sight. I saw the cover of an ammo can embedded in the trunk of one tree.
Then, when I reached a spot where normally I would have seen the barracks, I saw the control tower of the Beirut International Airport, which was next to our camp. I stopped dead in my tracks — this simply wasn’t what I was supposed to be seeing. Then things went into slow motion for a while. A heavy gray dust was drifting down, covering everything like a thick blanket. As my brain started engaging again, I focused and began to see things, human things that snapped me back to reality because, without going into gruesome detail, it was obvious many men had died.
I ran back to the combat operations center to report what I’d seen and get help. I saw my boss, Maj. Bob Jordan, our public affairs officer, covered with dust and looking dazed because he’d been blown out of his rack too. I said — or probably yelled, I don’t recall — “The barracks is gone!”
Now, those words in Beirut in 1983 were as impossible to comprehend as the words “the twin towers are gone” were before 9/11. The barracks was a fortress with two-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls. It had served as a headquarters for Israeli troops; it had withstood artillery and heavy naval gunfire with barely a scratch. Yet it was gone. And with it, some 220 marines, 18 sailors and 3 soldiers died. Hundreds more were injured.
Five years ago, at the 20th anniversary remembrance of the bombing at the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, N.C., I met one of the many American children who were left fatherless that day. She had been a baby when the terrorists had killed her father, a Marine captain. She had come to find out about her father from the men who had served with him. Her father had written her many letters from Beirut; she had one with her and let me read it.
He had written it in September 1983. In it, he told her that people back home would question why the United States was involved in Beirut and why it was important to let the people there gain their freedom. He told her that it was far better to confront the terrorist enemy there where they lived rather than have to fight them 20 years later in the United States.
It turns out he was right about everything but the time frame — it took only 18 years for the war to come to America.
Had we stood our ground 25 years ago instead of pulling out after the bombing, it is possible that 9/11 would not have happened. Likewise, anyone who thinks we can pull back into a shell now and hope terrorism will go away simply isn’t looking at the lessons history offers.
People ask if we are accomplishing anything in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say yes. Terrorists no longer have a safe haven in Afghanistan. If we pull out of Iraq before the time is right, guess who moves in: Iran. The same Iran that trained the Hezbollah bombers who killed 241 of my comrades on that October morning in Beirut. Do we want to look back 25 years from now and regret not having stayed the course again?