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Beirut—30 Years Later

Posted by on October 21, 2013

“Left a hundred…drop fifty.” The Gunny gnawed off another chunk of his Mars Bar and squinted up at the Chouf settlements in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains where Druze gunners were launching rockets into our compound at Beirut International Airport.

“If they’ve got an FO up there he needs a block of military instruction—or glasses.” I moved to look over the Gunny’s shoulder and spotted the flash from the launch site as another Katyusha rocket headed in our direction. We had the best seat in the house, a couple of lawn chairs that we’d hauled up onto the roof of the 24 MAU CP located in the airport’s former Fire Department. As a couple of Vietnam Veterans with plenty of experience under fire, we’d staked out the rooftop as a little sanctuary where we could talk privately while the rest of the MAU scrambled to bunkers and battle stations.

“Reminds me a little of Con Thien…or maybe Khe Sanh.” The Gunny and I had served at those besieged battlefields during the Southeast Asia Wargames and both of us were quietly discussing the frustration and inevitable consequences of living in the ten-ring of a big target surrounded by people with evil intent and access to artillery, mortars, and rockets. Over the past six months or so, we’d seen it coming and watched various Marine commanders bitch about a nebulous mission to no avail. Various bureaucrats and diplomats up and down our convoluted chain of command wrote off the increasing levels of incoming fire as “overs” or unintentional stray rounds from battles up in the mountains ringing BIA where the Lebanese Army our Marines had helped train was engaging Syrian, Druze and other formations determined to unseat a government shot through with factional disputes.

“The big difference,” I told the Gunny, “was that at Con Thien and Khe Sanh we could shoot back. We start doing that here in Beirut—assuming we could even get clearance—and there goes the neutral peacekeeper image Washington keeps pushing.”

“There it is…” The Gunny nodded and walked with me down below our perch where I was packing to leave Beirut. “This ain’t gonna end well, Skipper. You’re lucky to be out of it.”

As usual, the Gunny was right on all counts. I was lucky to be out of Beirut. Just a few months after I returned Stateside, happy to be home but fraught with worry about the buddies I’d left behind, a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden truck into our Battalion Landing Team headquarters. In one devastating second, the big building dubbed the Beirut Hilton, the building where I’d spent so much time on duty or visiting friends, disappeared. The structure that anchored our over-stretched perimeter around BIA collapsed in a near-nuclear detonation and crushed the life out of 241 of America’s finest fighting men. It took nearly everything I had to keep from screaming that it was bound to happen at the sad-faced pundits who announced the news on TV that day in October 1983.

Of all the experiences I have stored in the military section of my memory banks Beirut remains one of the most painful. For the second time in my life on that devastating day in 1983 I was home safe from the wars and dealing with survivor guilt. Maybe if I’d just volunteered to stay in Beirut I could have done something; maybe I could have found a way to shake up the bureaucracy and warn them of what the Gunny and most of the other Vietnam Veterans serving in Beirut could so plainly see coming in one form or another. When I left we had gone from peacekeepers to enemy combatants in the eyes of the anti-government factions and religious extremists who seethed while we trained the Lebanese Army and then called air strikes and naval gunfire missions on them. Peacekeepers don’t do that stuff. Warriors do.

Marines are warriors by nature and by training. You can call them Peacekeepers, or neutral observers or any other euphemism that politically suits a given situation, but you can’t—or shouldn’t—ask them to stand by and take a beating while they have the means to give better than they’re getting from an enemy on any battlefield. That’s a recipe for disaster. Of course being Marines and both highly dedicated and strongly disciplined, they will do as directed by lawful authority even if it obviously means they are likely to get killed in the process. Boiled down to the essence, that’s what happened in Beirut.

The fact that it happened to some of the finest men—both veterans and boots undergoing their first trial by fire—that I’ve ever known is both sad and exasperating as I look back on the experience thirty years later. It’s also one of the things that make me most proud to be a Marine and to have served at their side in Beirut. And so, for the first time in those thirty years since the bombing in Beirut, I’m going to join a dwindling muster of survivors at Camp Lejeune where we will remember the experience and honor those who didn’t make it home. There will be a lot of bitching, re-hashing, and remembering along with tears and tremors as we remember. But remember we will—even if the rest of the country does not.

10 Responses to Beirut—30 Years Later

  1. MSgt M. G. Fresia

    Thank you, Sir. And Semper-Fi

  2. M. Vance

    Dale,

    Their sacrifice is not forgotten.

  3. Spinkter

    It was outstanding for my wife and I to meet you and spend some time with you at the 30th.
    Semper Fi. Yat Yas

    Spink

  4. Chris Grey (MSgt, USMC RET) AKA WD

    Skipper Dye,
    I was and still am proud to stand at your side through thick and thin and forever grateful for all you taught a young Marine Sergent. Your lessons went beyond avoiding an ambush or how to egress a minefield (successfully). You were a mentor, a teacher and a father figure to those looking to you for calm in a chaotic and dangerous world. Your lessons were absorbed, appreciated and then then passed down the line to the next generation of Leathernecks and then to the next – you are still saving lives and honing warriors.
    Semper Fi
    Chris Grey (MSgt, USMC RET) AKA WD

  5. Leonard Courson

    Capt Dye, The 30th anniversary of Beirut was kind of hard for me. Long, long ago back when I was an enlisted man attending Auburn University under the NESEP Program in 1972-76, I knew this NROTC midshipman named William E. (Bill) Winter. He was commissioned before me and became an infantry officer as I remember. He was killed in Beirut in October 1983. My memories of him as a Midshipman are great. We shared a moment at Auburn when the so-called “steaker” came along the concourse of Haley Center. I also used his Marine Officer’s Mamaluke sword to cut my wedding cake in 1973. He is the only Marine I ever knew that was KIA. I was in Oceanside, CA looking at the CBS Evening News in 1983 when I saw his name scroll past on the screen as one of the 241 Americans who died that day. I cried that day. As for me I never had a war, except the Cold War to fight even though I served 20 years from 1970-1990. I even remember you at FEN as a Chief Warrant Officer doing the news in 1979. Thank you for your rememberance. I look forward to you next role. Semper Fidelis, Leonard A. Courson, Major, USMC, Retired.

  6. Kenny Gos

    Capt Dye it was great hanging out with you at Paul Jermon’s place during the events of the 30th Beirut Memorial. You are a true Warrior and I know me, Gary Lee Smith, Antonio “Motown” Moton and Richard “Pops” Vaughn learned a lot from those couple of days spent with you. Semper Fi Sir, it was a pleasure.

  7. William D. Hobbs

    When the gate guard saw that the truck was not going to stop and his M-16 was loaded he could have emptied it at the driver and stood a 90 percent chance of stopping it before it reached the barracks. Why did General P. X. Kelly order the gate guard’s arms not to be loaded? The truck would have probably blown up anyway but at the gate not at the barracks. William D. Hobbs, Major, USA(ret)

  8. Conrad Nagel

    Thank you for your service! Semper Fi from another old Marine

  9. Jeff Johanson

    Sir, I was thirteen and I remember. I was the “current events” kid that always brought anything military to class. Beirut is one of the many reasons I joined the military.

    All gave some, some gave all

  10. Bill Craig

    Capt. Dye,

    I was with !st Bn. 8th Marines after I returned from Vietnam in the in 1967-1968.

    I my heart broke when I heard about the bombing in Beirut, this should not have happen.

    Look forward to meeting you at the Freedom Ball in Atlanta.

    Semper Fi!

    Sgt. Craig USMC

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