In the early hours of October 23rd 1983 I was awake. I could not sleep. I was a new Army 2nd Lieutenant attending the Junior Officer Maintenance Course at Ft Knox Kentucky following the completion of the Medical Service Corps Officer Basic Course enroute to my first assignment in Germany.
I had gone out with friends earlier in the evening. Since Ft Knox was located in a dry county we made a trip up to a restaurant in Louisville followed by a trip to a bar and dance club for drinks. All of us that went were either newly married or engaged and none of our wives or soon to be wives were there we were on good behavior. After a dinner and a few drinks we went back to Knox, each to our own quarters.
It was late and since I couldn’t get to sleep I turned on CNN, which at the time was a rather new thing in news. I think that it was about 2AM that CNN broke in with the news that the Marine Barracks had been bombed. As the day developed the extent of the catastrophe became apparent, the barracks was destroyed and 241 Marines, Sailors and Soldiers were dead, with another 60 wounded. It was the worst single day loss suffered by the Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Battalion Landing Team 1/8, built around the 1st Battalion 8th Marines had been assigned as part of the UN Peacekeeping Force following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The BLT was billeted at the Beirut International Airport and at 0620 a truck driven by a suicide bomber containing explosives equivalent of over 12,000 lbs of explosives blew it up in the lobby of the building. Rules of Engagement prevented the few sentries on duty from engaging the vehicle until it had already crashed through the barbed wire and was lodged in the building. The explosion blew out the support structure of the building and caused it to pancake upon itself trapping those inside. About 2 minutes after the attack French Paratroopers of the 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment were hit by a truck bomb at their barracks about 6 km away. 58 French Paras were killed and many more wounded in an attack that caused more casualties in a single day since the French campaign in Algeria.
In the days and weeks following the attack a series of minor American and French airstrikes and Naval gunfire attacks were launched with little effect. President Reagan withdrew the Marines and the UN and French also withdrew their force. The attacks and the limited response gave the Iranian backed Hezbollah militia new swagger and respect. Hezbollah is now one of the most deadly opponents of the United States, Israel and the West.
Fast forward. In January 2000 I am a relatively new Navy Chaplain and get no notice orders transferring me from the Second Combat Engineer Battalion of 2nd Marine Division at Camp LeJeune NC to the 1st Battalion 8th Marine Regiment as a “relief pitcher” when their chaplain was removed from his duties. On a wall of the HQ building at Camp LeJeune was a mural drawn by Marines which honored their predecessors who died in the bombing. In the 5 months that I was with the battalion before going on to another battalion as a “relief pitcher” I got to appreciate the sacrifice of the Marines, Navy Hospital Corpsmen and 6 attached Army Soldiers. Today I serve at the Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune. The Marines of the Fleet Marine Force are part of who I am. I am proud to have served with both the 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion of the 8th Marine Regiment.
At Camp LeJeune there is a memorial every year at the Beirut Memorial. Many veterans , survivors of the attacks and relatives of the fallen attend. I was not able to attend this year but remember attending it in 2001, nit long after the 9-11 attacks. There are 241 trees , one for each of the fallen planted along Carolina Highway 24 outside of Camp LeJeune.
The Beirut expedition showed the limitations of military power as well as the wisdom of President Reagan and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinburger not to get even more involved in another country’s civil war. The decision to withdraw was prudent, especially since the Cold War was reaching its apex and the Soviets were deeply involved in Afghanistan and the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini was becoming more bellicose. The sad thing is that we did not realize those limits before the bombing nor had given the commanders on the ground rules of engagement that might have prevented the bombing. Instead the military chain of command was blamed for the loss and the politicians that orchestrated the intervention got off scott free.
Let us not forget the sacrifice of those 241 American Marines, Sailors and Soldiers and the 58 French troops who died in those attacks 29 years ago.