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JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — In a moment of quiet reflection, Ed Ayers sat in front a wall etched with the names of 241 Americans who were slaughtered 30 years ago when a suicide bomber drove a truck into a four-story military barracks in Beirut. He wept as he remembered his own peacekeeping service before his unit was replaced by the troops who were attacked.
“It’s a shame,” said Ayers, who wished the U.S. involvement in Lebanon’s civil war had been handled differently. “I don’t think we’re the world’s police. We should determine what our own values are.”
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos and hundreds of others gathered Wednesday at the memorial bordering Camp Lejeune. A granite wall with the words “They Came in Peace” honors the bombing victims of Oct. 23, 1983, which was the deadliest terrorist attack on Americans before Sept. 11, 2001.
Amos said the attack helped define the start of America’s war against terrorists.
“The nation was not expecting this. There was a new kind of warfare — the threat of radical extremists being able to target military and civilian personnel with weapons of mass destruction for political, religious and personal gains,” he said. “We will never forgive nor will we ever forget.”
But some worried the 1983 attack and a truck-bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut six months earlier had been forgotten.
Michelle Lucas was 15 when her brother, Lance Cpl. Richard Morrow, died in the barracks bombing. She wished more people knew about the attack.
“I don’t know why it’s not taught in schools,” the Philadelphia-area woman said, her eyes red from crying. “It’s not on the news like 9/11. Nine-eleven had several, several memorial television programs to it that air every year on 9/11. But there’s nothing on Beirut.”
The anniversary is marked annually here because many of the Americans killed were members of Camp Lejeune’s 24th Marine Amphibious Unit. In all, 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers were killed. A terrorist attack the same day against French peacekeepers in Beirut killed 58.
American, French, British and Italian troops arrived in Lebanon to try stabilizing the country bloodied by a civil war between Christians allied with Israel and Muslims.
The bombing was blamed on the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran. A U.S. judge has ordered Iran to pay more than $7 billion to the families of victims, but so far they haven’t been paid.
A U.S. investigation said lax security led to the bombing and a report called for improving security measures around buildings.
President Ronald Reagan sought to retaliate against Lebanese militias by ordering the battleship USS New Jersey to bombard the hills near Beirut from its position off the country’s coast. Months later, the Marines were ordered out of Lebanon.
“We just packed our stuff and went home,” Rick Von Bergen, 50, of Seneca Falls, N.Y., said bitterly. “We didn’t do anything. Nothing. Nothing.”
Von Bergen was a Marine payroll clerk and asleep in another building when the barracks blast shook him awake. He and his comrades struggled to tend to the injured, wrapping wounds in shipping plastic, wet towels and whatever else they could find. Homeless and living off a disability check for post-traumatic stress, Von Bergen said he can still hear their screaming in his dreams.
“It is very tough to talk about,” he said.
Retired Col. Tim Geraghty, commander of the U.S. peacekeeping contingent, had just returned to his office in the building behind the barracks when the bomb blew his door off its hinges. He believes jihadi terrorists drew inspiration from the bombing.
“Acts of terrorism have become a staple on our evening news reports, and seem to be increasing,” Geraghty said.
Former Lance Cpl. John L’Heureux was on lookout on the barracks roof when the whole structure lurched upward with the force of the blast.
“I don’t know how many feet it went up, and then it just collapsed,” said the 49-year-old man from Randolph, Mass. Comrades digging him out dropped a cinder block on his head, leaving a whitish L-shaped scar on the right side of his scalp. He lifted his shirt and revealed puckered and jagged scars on his side, back and stomach from where he was impaled on a chair.
He longed to retaliate.
“I would have liked to have seen them wiped off the face of the Earth,” he said. He also lamented the lack of attention this seminal moment receives 30 years later.
“I remember last year I picked up the paper on Oct. 23, and there wasn’t one thing in the paper, there wasn’t one thing on the radio,” he said. “They say, ‘Will people always remember 9/11?’ And everybody’s saying, ‘Yes. Yes.’ But they won’t. As time goes by, they’re going to forget. Unless you were personally hurt or a loved one hurt and something like that, you’re going to forget.”
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.