At a time when we appear to feel more urgency about tearing down monuments and memorials than we do about raising new ones, there is at least one worthy exception. This one honors the lives and tells an American story of sacrifice for freedom by those whose memory undeniably deserves to be preserved.
These would be the over 10,000 U.S. Marines, Navy sailors, and Army soldiers who served, many of whom died, in Beirut, Lebanon between 1982 to 1984. On October 23, 1983, 39 years ago this month, 220 Marines were killed, along with 18 sailors and three soldiers. It was the worst single-day loss of life for the Marines since Iwo Jima in World War II.
U.S. Marines first came ashore as peacekeepers on August 25, 1982 after pro-Israel Christian leader Bashir Pierre Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon. Their mission was to stand in the breach between the Israelis and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) to keep the peace while the PLO evacuated Lebanon. When this was accomplished, the Marines left.
Shortly after, Gemayel was assassinated leading to a large massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The Marines returned to Lebanon. Their new mission was to stand between implacable enemies: the Christians of Lebanon, and Muslim-led factions, Hezbollah – a Muslim terrorist group - and ultimately Iran.
The U.S. troops were sent as peacekeepers to protect innocent civilians, and not combatants. Their rules of engagement said:
- Use only minimum degree of force to accomplish the mission.
- Keep loaded magazine in weapon, bolt closed, weapon on safe, no round in the chamber.
It was a difficult mission. Marines are assault troops and the rules they had to follow were not the usual Leatherneck task. Nonetheless, they followed orders.
Their mission might have been impossible. Top officials in the Reagan administration argued Marines should not be in Lebanon at all, while others believed only Marines could accomplish this mission.
But Hezbollah considered the Marines defenders of the enemy – the Christian Militias and the government in Beirut. Thus, they were viewed by Hezbollah as the enemy, as well. So, they became targets- highly desirable ones because they represented the ultimate enemy, the United States.
In April 1983, the U.S. embassy was attacked by a suicide bomber. The 63 dead included one Marine guard.
On August 28, two Marine peacekeepers were killed by mortar fire. More incidents and more casualties followed. The peacekeepers were now targets.
Then, in the early morning of October 23, a hijacked bomb-laden truck crashed through security barricades and into the Marines’ headquarters and barracks. It triggered a massive explosion killing 241 Americans along with 58 French troops. It remains the most-devastating attack ever on American citizens outside the United States.
There were some survivors, buried in the rubble. Several who survived died later from their injuries.
The Marines were eventually withdrawn from Lebanon. The inevitable investigations and recriminations followed. Time passed and there were annual ceremonies to remember and honor those who paid the ultimate price, recognize the survivor provide some comfort to the families.
Soon, construction will begin on the Beirut Peacekeepers Memorial Tower, in Port Charlotte, Florida, a town recently impacted by hurricane Ian, at a park named after one of the Marines who died in the Beirut explosion, Cpl. William R. Gaines, Jr. When completed, the centerpiece of the park will be this symbolic 40-foot tower simulating the bombing. Large panels on each floor of the tower will educate visitors, prompting reflection and remembrance.
The Marines, sailors, and soldiers who died in Beirut were arguably the first American casualties in the War on Terror. The embassy and barracks bombings were the first major battles in that war.
At the time of the attack, I was a newly elected member of the House of Representatives from a district in Florida and knew the family of Cpl. Gaines. I recently wrote to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in support of a state funding effort for the Beirut Memorial Tower which was approved by the governor in June.
There were 20 Marines and sailors from Florida who died in the Beirut Bombing, and this project will be a fitting tribute to their service and sacrifice. During my tenure in Washington, I had the privilege of working on legislation to help families who were victims of terrorism. I know from their stories how meaningful it is when their loss is recognized.
Unfortunately, unrest in the Middle East is just as volatile today. But I do believe this story and its place in our nation’s history is important to remember.
Stories like these must be told. This is a time to heal.
The writer is a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate