Twenty five years ago today I was driving to work when I heard the news about a suicide truck bomber attacking the US Marine peacekeeping force deployed in Beirut, Lebanon. I had never heard of a suicide bomber and did not know the Marines, deployed to Lebanon as a buffer between waring factions, were even targets. I did not understand why our peacekeepers were attacked nor did I have a clear picture about why they were there in the first place. But I did know one thing; I was about to find out what was going on in person and find out very soon.
I was a HM2 back then trained as an advance medical laboratory technician and stationed at the Newport Naval Hospital. I was also the Leading Petty Officer (LPO) of our small mobile medical augmentation readiness team. The team OIC was the head of the OB/GYN service at the hospital. Like every OB/GYN doctor I know he craved being able to sleep through the night without interruption. He recognized a golden opportunity to escape the OB/GYN ward where he was on call every third day and campaigned ceaselessly to get us deployed following the bombing. He was successful and our small team was sent into the fray during the first week of November.
Our team was comprised of two general surgeons (our OIC was counted as one of them even though he was an OB/GYN specialist) a male nurse and four corpsmen. We flew into the US Naval Air Station in Sigonella, Sicily where we had to wait for around a week as the 22nd MAU steamed across the Atlantic from Grenada. There was no room on base so we were sent to sort of shabby hotel called the Total Motel to wait. We were all excited to be deployed and had no idea what we would be doing when we linked up with the Amphibious Ready Group. The wait seemed to last forever. As we paced about the hotel restlessly our OIC slept for three days straight; we had never seen him happier.
We were assigned to the helicopter carrier USS Guam (LPH 7) where we joined a larger team from Portsmouth Naval Hospital in augmenting the ships medical department. We had one mass casualty event during our short stay off the coast of Beirut. In early December BLT 2/8 lost 7 men to Syrian artillery gunners who scored a direct hit on their observation post. The Marines exploded out of their positions leveling an abandoned apartment building which served as a sniper nest for Hezbollah shooters and pushing the local fighters out of areas where they had direct observations of the Marine perimeter. They also drove militants from the buildings adjacent to their positions at the American University.
We saw a lot of casualties over a 20 hour period which stressed our resources to the limit. As the LPO of our team, I worked triage in the hanger bay when the first casualties arrived. Later as the surgeons started their work in the two operating rooms I handled the “walking blood bank” which was every Marine and sailor on board who was type O negative. The line of men stretched across the entire 02 level of the ship, down the ladder well and into the hanger bay. I will never forget the looks of concern on the men as they waited their turn to donate the blood which would keep their brothers alive. A quiet intensity descended on the entire ship. As we typed the casualties we would call for type specific blood and the 1MC loudspeakers would broadcast orders for all type A positive or AB negative sailors to report to sick bay. The line organized itself as men flooded the passageway in response to those requests but when we called for a specific type the next donor of that type in line was rushed forward. The emotion pouring out of these guys is one of my most distinct memories from that day.
We had set up a stretcher on stands in the little pre-op area outside the two surgical rooms. LPH’s were old helicopter carriers with a very primitive medical suite. The newer ships have vastly more capability and room then we had back then. There was a lot of blood on the deck some of the surgeons left bloody foot prints as we moved about the spaces tending the wounded. It think it took four to five hours before all the wounded had rotated into surgery and during that time sailors who were donating blood were lying face to face with the critically wounded waiting their turn in the OR. Many cried while they took in the condition of “their” Marines two of whom would not last the night. It was very upsetting and I don’t know how my fellow corpsman and I maintained our composure. I have not thought of this in any detail for the past 25 years and have rarely talked of it. As raw emotion wells up inside me I understand why these memories are buried so deeply. This is probably the first time my children will hear this story and they are now the same age as the men who were there. This indeed is a Long War and a burden which has already been passed to my children’s generation.
When the last of the casualties cleared the OR the senior corpsmen gathered in our little triage area there were seven bodies we had to clean and prepare for transport home. This is a task which is so serious that I cannot explain it in words. The boat Master Chief, the Chief Master at Arms and the senior Boatswain Mate were there waiting for the ships senior corpsman who was a first class petty officer. He looked at me, the senior petty officer from the Portsmouth team and the ships lab tech who was also a 1st class petty officer and said “boys it is on us – I don’t want the rest of the men to see this.” I was to learn later that these words have been uttered hundreds of times before and many times since by sergeants or petty officers who had to recover the remains of their dead after battle. These are young men in their mid to late twenties bearing the burden of responsibility for the men they lead into harm’s way. In the American military this is NCO’s work borne from the unwritten rules of combat leadership.
The Chiefs formed a quick scrum to work out a plan for bringing the bodies up from the big food refrigerators. We only had a four point stretcher hoist to get them from the hanger bay into the medical spaces. The whole ship would see what was happening but there was no other way to do it. I understand the crewmen and embarked Marines formed a large impromptu formation in the hanger bay and watched in grief stricken silence as each body bag went up and came back down in the aluminum casket ready for the journey home. It took a long time. In compliance with decedent affairs SOP’s a photographers mate had to take a prescribed series of pictures once we had placed the men into the military transport coffins. He did not last long at his post. The damage a 155mm artillery round can do the human body is something few are prepared to witness. We took the pictures for him. I really don’t want to dwell on this topic because it was upsetting back then and apparently (unexpectedly) remains so to this day. I did not sit down to write this story it just came out and I am not sure why. But I want to stress this and it is thing all of you should know. The care, respect and love with which those remains were treated is a testament to the human decency residing inside all of us. Extreme adversity brings forth qualities in people you’d never suspect were there and when those qualities (the good ones) surface like they did amongst the medics and crew of the Guam that day it is a beautiful thing to experience. I feel compelled to stress this as I think about Beirut because I don’t think many people know this part of our military culture. There are some things that make you proud to be a human being and the reaction to wounded and dead by the men aboard LPH 9 that day is one of those things.
We pulled the Marines out of Beirut just before St Patrick’s Day of 2004. After a short liberty call in Haifa, Israel my team flew home. I wondered for years what how to explain the sacrifice made by the men who died in Beirut. The American military considers itself the defenders of our democracy who fight to protect America from its enemies abroad. But no enemy in Beirut threatened America. We were not fighting another state who we could beat us into submission. We had no intentions of bringing the people of Lebanon the benefits of American-style democracy and we cannot do that in Afghanistan today. So what does it all mean?
The answer, for me at least, was best articulated in an outstanding book Thomas PM Barnett called The Pentagons New Map. I chanced upon the book years ago so I’m going off memory on the parts of Barnett’s theory which really resonated with me. The United States is the only country in the world which can project military force into foreign lands and sustain that force indefinitely. Our military is designed for expeditionary warfare and no other nation on earth has the ships, aircraft or logistical infrastructure to do what we can do. There are countries and places in the world which give birth to critical system perturbations which severely disrupt the international markets and degrade international security. These cannot be tolerated and there is only one nation with the ability to eliminate the source of these perturbations. The 9/11 attack on our country is a good example of an unacceptable system perturbation.
We could have ejected Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, told the warlords we worked with not to let that happen again and left. That may ultimately prove to have been our best move but it was not apparently one given serious consideration. Now, just as in Beirut 25 years ago, we find ourselves surrounded by human currents we do not understand. Our effort in Afghanistan is larger the credibility of our nation is on the line this time and we cannot back out. And just as in Beirut Americans (with allies from 40 other nations) are here fighting people who are not a direct threat to our homelands. I think there is a connection to our impulse to rebuild a country which has little strategic value and few resources and the way the men of LPH 9 reacted to our single mass casualty event. It is the decent side of human nature displayed as policy and it is something which should generate enormous pride in the 41 countries who have deployed forces to Afghanistan.
There are other more pragmatic reasons to be here. System perturbations like 9/11 cause enormous damage to the world financial systems. They could destroy us if left unchecked. But that is not what is motivating us to remain in Afghanistan. We told these people we would rebuild their infrastructure and help them recover from 30 years of devastating war. We will fight long and hard to give these people a chance to join the modern world. We told them we would do this and we ask for nothing in return. The peoples in this part of the world have known many invaders since the beginning of time but none has ever come here to offer peace, to offer hope, and to offer the blood of her young so that Afghan children can go to school and live in peace.
The Long War started 25 years ago with the suicide attack on the Marines in Beirut. We were forced back into the fight on 9/11. The attackers that day were amongst the most privileged and educated people in their countries of origin. Their hatred of the US was not motivated by anything we have done in fact their hatred had little to do with us at all. There are peoples in this world who hate everything we respect for reasons too complex to explain in a blog post. If we are to rid ourselves of this menace then engaging this part of the world is vitally necessary. We started that engagement in Beirut and paid a terrible price for our efforts. We continue that engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and we continue to pay a terrible price. The Marines in Beirut were there to bring a little security to the people of Lebanon. They knew that their mere presence brought some hope and a chance for peace to people victimized by war. The men and woman deployed in the fight today are doing the same thing. The Long War is far from over the butchers bill may become more than some want to bear but we have little choice. Our warriors will continue to pay the butchers bill for us in hopes of preventing our countrymen from adding their blood to the tab as they did on 9/11.
It started 25 years ago with the deaths of men who were in Beirut because nobody else could do the job. May God bless them they came in peace.