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(JACKSONVILLE, N.C.) Family members and friends as well as foreign dignitaries gathered together to remember those lost during the peacekeeping presence in Beirut during the 23rd annual Commemoration of the Beirut Memorial Observance Ceremony at the Camp Lejeune Memorial Gardens, Oct. 23. (Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright)

Photo by Lance Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

1,000 tears for every name, the Beirut Memorial is honored once again

23 Oct 2009 | Lance Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

 “They came in peace.”

The words inscribed on the large granite wall can only give a brief glimpse into the events that occurred Oct. 23, 1983. Some of the emotions felt that day were remorse and despair; a mix of sensations still felt by many 26 years later. Families sat in silence as they paid tribute to the lives lost and remembered the sacrifices made by so many Marines, sailors and soldiers, both national and foreign, during one day in Beirut.

The ceremony, where the tears shared by the families meant more than the diamonds which they resembled, was strong and solemn, time seemingly stopped for the following procession. The Beirut Memorial Ceremony, held every Oct. 23 at 10:30 a.m. at the Lejeune Memorial Gardens, is a time for remembering those lost in the bombing of the Marine barracks as well as those in Grenada; the 273 service men that perished.

“This event, plus subsequent actions in Beirut and Grenada, caused the deaths of 273 U.S. Marines, soldiers and sailors,” said Sammy Phillips, mayor of the City of Jacksonville. “Most of these men were from Camp Lejeune and were the friends and neighbors of the citizens of Jacksonville and Onslow County, North Carolina. This event is something our community vowed to never forget.”

October 23, 1983, at 6:22 a.m., a massive explosion rocked the Marine compound, a fog of gray cement dust and ash clouded over the sky. A second explosion was heard in the distance as a similar catastrophe occurred in the French military detachment’s base.

“They came in peace.”

In the book Peacekeepers at War, by retired Marine Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, commanding officer of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut, he recalled the account of Sgt. Steven Russell, duty sergeant of the guard for the Marine barracks:

“He saw a large yellow Mercedes truck accelerating through the barbed-wire obstacles directly toward the Battalion Landing Team Headquarters. He ran through the headquarters screaming ‘Hit the deck! Hit the deck!’ Right behind him, he saw the 19-ton vehicle crash through his sandbag guard shack at the entrance and stop in the middle of the lobby. A few seconds later, he saw a bright orange-yellow flash at the grill of the truck. The last thing he remembered was feeling ‘a wave of intense heat and a powerful shock wave.’”

Geraghty was just one of many survivors who attended the ceremony. The speeches had not yet concluded when an air of sorrow appeared on the attendee’s faces. A little girl, who seemed to have not yet reached the age of 10, was crying into her mother’s shoulder for the deaths of those she never had the chance to meet.

“They came in peace.”

“Two hundred and forty-one Americans lost their lives 26 years ago today, as a nation we sometimes remember these events simply by the numbers,” said Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, deputy commanding general of II Marine Expeditionary Force. “We as Marines want to remember the names.” Lefebvre was a young captain on barracks duty in New Jersey as a company commander in charge of 385 Marines. He turned on the TV that morning and watched the casualty count grow.

“’Sir, we can cut the force in half here and half of us can go over tomorrow,’” he said. “It’s that level of commitment that exemplifies who we are and what we’re about.”

Lefebvre ended the speeches with a story as told by former Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Paul X. Kelly.

At the time Kelly was visiting critically injured Marines from the Beirut bombing in an Air Force hospital. “He spoke of a young Marine with more tubes going in and out of his body than he had ever seen,” said Lefebvre recalling the commandant’s encounter. “He couldn’t see very well. He reached up and grabbed my four stars just to make sure I was who I said I was. He held my hand with a firm grip. He was making signals and we realized he wanted to tell me something. We put a pad of paper in his hand, and he wrote ‘Semper Fi.’”

“They came in peace.”

When the speeches concluded and the colors posted, the attendants were then able to walk those slow steps down to the memorial wall inscribed with the names of those who were lost. One could feel their own hearts move from the look in the eyes of those who reached out and felt the indent of a name or when that hand started to tremble when the flood of memories came rushing in. A look of deep mourning laced with a tinge of regret made up the deep pools of their eyes, and their faces fell in tune.

“It was a very deep, moving ceremony,” said French Col. Brice Houdet, French embassy attaché in Washington, D.C. “I was in our ‘military high school’ at the time, and it was a deep shock to all of us. Being once a paratrooper myself, this ceremony always means a lot. No one will let the memory of what happened die.”