Doctor emails BVA looking for Marine he treated that day; Marine told him, “Don’t worry Doc, you’ll be fine.” Asks for help locating Marine.
This is an amazing story from Dr. Jacques Morcos about his life in Beirut, and his actions on 10/23/1983. Following is Board Member/BVA Membership Chair Richard Truman’s email response. If you recognize this Marine, contact BVA!
“As an immigrant who felt welcomed to this country, I myself begin this personal exploratory journey, an exercise I hope all of us are engaging in. I first need to muster all the positive inner energy I can for this reflective voyage. There is no better way to accomplish this than for me to rekindle the past, crystallize my thoughts and feelings about this land and her people, and rediscover how I came to fall in love with both.” Dr. Morcos.
“Beirut, October 23, 1983
Early on a Sunday morning, October 23, 1983, a formidable explosion perpetrated by a suicide bomber took the lives of 241 Americans. Among the dead were 220 Marines, 18 Navy sailors, and 3 Army soldiers, in addition to more than 100 injured. The scene of this horrific act—the worst single-day death toll for Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima—was a nondescript four-story aviation administration building next to the airport in Beirut, Lebanon. It was the headquarters of the US 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, a peacekeeping force dispatched by President Reagan in an attempt to temper the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War, which had been raging since 1975 and would not officially end until 1990.
Most of the casualties of that infamous day were rushed to the American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC). That emergency room (ER) was not foreign to mass casualties. Its staff had witnessed unspeakable violence and mayhem, with hordes of dismembered bodies of civilians and militia fighters from all nationalities, factions, parties, and religions raining in on a daily basis since 1975. But on that fateful Sunday, the sheer scope of the horror was simply overwhelming, even to the experienced physicians and nurses. Bodies of the injured and dead spilled outside the small ER and were laid down in endless rows on the pavements and streets around the hospital. Every available physician, surgeon, resident, medical student, and nurse came to help triage the injured.
I grew up in Lebanon and lived there for most of the war. I was a 4th-year medical student at AUB in 1983, and I was on campus that Sunday. I don’t remember if I was in the midst of my ER clinical rotation or some other rotation that month. My father had died in that very ER a few weeks prior, on September 12. He had collapsed to the floor at home. I had carried him onto an ambulance, and we had taken our last ride together to the hospital, across the Green Line dividing the capital into two warring factions. He had recovered consciousness during that ride, long enough to whisper to me his last words: “I cannot move my legs.” Fifteen minutes after arriving to the ER, he had a cardiac arrest and died from a presumed dissecting thoracic aortic aneurysm. His medical student son could not save him. But on that Sunday, October 23, still grieving the loss of my dad, I came face-to-face with a human tragedy that I was not yet equipped to handle. It was an apocalyptic scene, straight out of 19th-century war massacres. Bearing witness to what was happening, I was stunned and found myself briefly, like my dad, but for a different reason, unable to move. The surgical chief resident was doing his best to orchestrate the triage of the casualties. He dispatched me to one of the injured Marines lying down on the pavement.
I had not yet visited the US, nor come face-to-face with its legendary military. Like many young Lebanese with big dreams, I knew “America” through the biased lens of its exported movies, its rock bands, and the handful of brave US college professors who taught us at AUB in wartime. English being my third language after Arabic and French, I actually had a hard time understanding the American slang of my professors during my first freshman semester. Regardless, my ambition was to train as a neurosurgeon in the US, if it would have me. The profile on my application would have read, “Middle Eastern, war-torn country, no Ivy League school credentials”—not exactly check marks that propelled me to the top of any US neurosurgical training priority list.
I approached this wounded Marine, whose life I was suddenly put in charge of, with enormous trepidation. He was shirtless, an impressive amalgam of muscle, grit, and composure. He was riddled with rocks and shrapnel, and I was riddled with fear. He deserved a real doctor, and all he got was me. I simply could not let him die. I kneeled next to him, visibly shaken. He was conscious and bleeding actively from his left temple, and probably from other places I could not see. Yet he was incredibly serene. I glanced for advice at my overburdened chief resident, who was working feverishly a few bodies away. He gestured to me to put pressure on the wound. I did, with my ungloved and probably hesitant hand, and held tight. That’s all I did, out there in the middle of the street; that’s all I knew to do while waiting for a free spot for him inside. Perhaps it was the way I looked or my tremor; perhaps he sensed my recent loss, my sadness, my incompetence. But this man, injured from head to toe, oozing blood, honor, and duty, this man who left his family behind and risked his life to bring peace to a people he never knew, this foreigner in a strange land, who was hated and targeted by others in my own country, just turned slightly to look at me, broke a smile and said, “Don’t worry, doc, you will be fine.” The patient was comforting the physician, the injured soothing the healthy, the victim forgiving the would-be executioner, the foreigner guiding the native. It was ironic, embarrassing, and uplifting all at once.
But one more thing struck me that day. This fallen hero I had just met in the flesh did not look like the mythical figures depicted and glorified in the American movies I had seen. The lone rangers and cowboys, warriors and crime fighters, leading men and comedians, physicians and scientists that I wanted to emulate as a teenager, that were chosen by American directors and producers to represent American culture, looked more like me: sunlight reflected readily off their skin. In other words, they were White. But on October 23, 1983, my most impactful life lesson that eclipsed in an instant many of the pointless and mindless heroes of my childhood was unintentionally but indelibly stamped on me through my brief encounter with the first authentic American patriot I ever came across. His skin happened to be blessed with enough pigment to help it absorb, rather than reflect, most of the sunlight that shines on it. Yet on that day, some of that Beirut sunlight bounced off my wounded Marine as he lay bleeding on Lebanese soil, struck me back, and showed me who he was. That light carried with it a lot of the heart and soul of an American Marine, his courage and resilience, his intelligence and sensibility, generosity and wisdom, grace under fire and dignity under strife. But additionally, perhaps there were lessons of determination in spite of discrimination, survival through rebellion, lessons carried and amplified across generations of oppression and slavery. On that October day, the unforgettable teacher who gave this impressionable young Lebanese man the shortest yet longest-lasting lesson of his life, the best possible ambassador who could have represented the essence and destiny of the US to the rest of the world, was a courageous and dignified American citizen, an American Marine, a Black American Marine … and thank God he was.
I was stunned by his surreal words and could not utter a reply. A lot of the thoughts I had about the encounter percolated in my head over the rest of the day, well after we had parted ways. Perhaps I had convinced myself that my silence might help mask the rest of my medical and psychological incompetence or that it dignified better the sanctity of the white coat that I did not yet deserve to wear. Perhaps I too might appear calm and instill hope in this valiant man, that he might survive his ordeal. Regardless, it was easier to stay quiet in the midst of the deafening sounds of death and moaning that surrounded us. With my hand firmly held on his temple for several minutes, I silently kept looking at the face of authenticity. More than ever, I wanted to breathe the air from the land that generates men and women of his caliber. He was eventually whisked away to be admitted and probably undergo surgery. The rest of this horrific day remains a blur in my memory. With all the chaos, I never found out his name, whether he lived or died.”
For Doctor Morcos’ full article, go here: https://nam01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fdoi.org%2F10.3171%2F2020.7.JNS202686&data=02%7C01%7CJMorcos%40med.miami.edu%7C2671a67e37d14b1505f308d847ace2de%7C2a144b72f23942d48c0e6f0f17c48e33%7C0%7C1%7C637338155153589784&sdata=lcLa%2B%2BqtKy2LofFIsyTvSPmLyCOA9xyq21zI6C5XIts%3D&reserved=0