A mile for each fallen hero

23 Oct 2008 | Lance Cpl. Joseph Day

One mile for every service member who perished that faithful day 25 years ago — that was the plan. Walk one mile to honor those men who died in the barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon. They came in peace, and so did he.

Steven Ayers left the country of Lebanon many years ago, but mentally he feels like he never left. Every day he looks back thinking this should never have happened.

Ayers was a part of the recovery crew. He pulled metal, bricks and bodies from the building’s rubble. His memory is scarred with the images of fallen brothers burned by the cowardly act of terrorism.

He recalled stories of his tour. His eyes drifted toward the “Other Wall.”  The pain in his facial expressions were apparent as he described one man who had a pistol scorn into his chest.

“He was young,” Ayers said.  “I’ll never forget that. I couldn’t even move the pistol. I had to have a corpsman remove it and clear it.

Every day, Ayers is tormented by the ghost of that day.

“I can’t go to sleep in my own bed anymore,” he said.  “I am afraid of dying in my sleep.”

Ayers decided he needed to find a way to put his mind at ease. He said the country was forgetting what happened to those 241 men. That’s when he decided three years ago today would be the day to defeat the demons that have plagued his mind throughout the past 25 years.

Setting out Oct. 1, Ayers left the shipyard his ship was stationed at in Virginia. He looked down the road and thought to himself, “241 miles to go,” then stepped off.

“The walk gives me time to think about all of those men who gave everything. Their lives, their families … everything,” he said. “They don’t deserve to be forgotten like a lot of Americans have. They went to that country on a peace mission, to help another country.”

The trip gave him 19 days where he could just remember those men who died. He traveled along the roadside, sleeping on the side of the road, in hotels and shelters. Toward the end of the trip, rain caused Ayers to take an early stop.

“I thought Beirut was going to get the best of me again,” he said. “But, my wife said I would never forgive myself if I didn’t see this through.”

The next day, Ayers crossed the border into Jacksonville, home of the Beirut Memorial. He walked along Route 24. The sun was already down and the temperature was dropping. 

Walking along, he spotted the memorial from the road and stopped just for a moment. He seemed as if he couldn’t bring himself to go to the wall. He looked down, looked up and said, “This isn’t for me, it’s for them on the wall.”

He placed his bag down and walked over to the wall in silence. He had completed his journey. He got close, looking at each name closely and individually.

Pain and anguish was smeared across his face as he slowly scanned each name. The battle-hardened man stood there emotionless, remembering all he had gone through.

Painful memories of long ago came to the forefront of his mind. He walked over to the statue and then to the quote summarizing their mission there:  “They came in peace.”

Ayers sat down and looked at the wall from a distance and said, “Those names should not be on that wall. This memorial shouldn’t be here. This could have been prevented.”

The whole time Ayers looked at the wall, he never moved his eyes from the names engraved in the stone and history.

“I never wanted this walk to be about me. They are the ones who gave their lives for their country. People are forgetting what happened. This country isn’t invincible. They’ve attacked us since then. I want our country to think about those men and know they didn’t die for nothing.”

Ayers stayed at the wall throughout the night Oct. 22. He never left his fallen brothers. The temperature dropped to 36 degrees in the middle of the night, but Ayers stayed until the candlelight vigil at 6 a.m.

“I feel great. I feel like I defeated the dragon,” he said.

Ayers left the memorial Friday along with the ghosts that plagued him there, with his fallen brothers.