As this year’s October 23 40th anniversary of the attack approaches, I pray that some of my memories can be used in programs, ceremonies — and sermons. I pray we remember this attack, mourn the victims, and celebrate the courage and humanity of the survivors who risked their lives to rescue their brothers.
In the first moments after the 6:22 a.m. attack on October 23, 1983, most of us ran out of our building — one about 75 yards from the barracks directly hit by the suicide driver — to do what we could until medical help arrived.
I had been brushing my teeth, wearing trousers and a t-shirt. When the building shook, windows exploded, and the doors came off their hinges, I “hit the deck,” thinking it was our building that had been hit by a mortar or a shell. When I got to my feet and others were slowly beginning to stand as well, we took a moment to give thanks that the building had withstood the attack. Only then did we begin to hear the screams from the other building, and realized what we had experienced had only been a result of the explosive force of the blast “next door.”
Fr. George Pucciarelli, the Catholic chaplain for the MAU (Marine Amphibious Unit — a unit that today would be called a MEU: Marine Expeditionary Unit) paused only to grab and put his purple stole around his neck, because he knew he would be administering last rites. At the same time he put it on, he yelled “follow me,” and we both ran out to a scene of unbelievable destruction and carnage.
The four story building across the way was completely demolished. Later the investigators would say that the blast — one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, the result of a suicide driver driving a van packed with explosives, under compressed gas pressure — had actually lifted up the building, which then collapsed and fell apart.
We didn’t know how long it would take for medical help to arrive, but it seemed like an eternity. We did what we could, literally tearing our clothing apart to use pieces to wipe blood and dirt from the faces of wounded Marines. At one point, after tearing my t-shirt to shreds, I used the small black kippa that I regularly wore.
When we finally had a moment to catch our breath, “Pooch” (my friend, the Priest) tore off the top piece of his Marine camouflage cap, and brought it over to me, to wear. He told me that in that area of the world, where every religious group seemed to be gunning for every other group, he wanted our personnel to remember not only that we as chaplains helped everyone — regardless of religion, and regardless of whether any of the wounded claimed a religion — but also that we did it side-by-side, Christian and Jew. (Today there are chaplains representing other faiths, as well.) “Interfaith cooperation” was not some academic theory for us. It was — and continues to be — our mission, and our way of life.
For the two years before that 1983 bombing, congress had been debating a “religious apparel amendment” that would allow Jewish military personnel in uniform to wear “neat and conservative” head coverings, but it failed to pass. (The general rule back then was that Jewish chaplains could keep their heads covered, but not non-chaplains — and sometimes even chaplains were not allowed that right.) Senator Lautenberg and Congressman Solarz, the two men behind the amendment, had the story of the camouflage kippa read into the Congressional Record, and they later told me they thought that story was the tipping point for passage. Suddenly, the idea of a kippa in uniform was not just a question of uniformity, instead it became a symbol of unity: that despite all the religious and ethnic backgrounds of our military personnel, we were unified, working side by side, when the chips were down. That kippa became a symbol of how we were united in our fight for freedom, including religious freedom.
That same idea was part of a story I still tell about our presence in Beirut, in an area covered with the foxholes and bunkers that we and the other militaries had dug. I said that there were Christian foxholes, dug by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists, Muslim foxholes for other Lebanese factions, and the largely Jewish foxholes used by Israeli/IDF forces. But our US foxholes were “interfaith,” crammed with service personnel of all religions and no religions (believe me, I came to learn quickly that the old WW2 saying that there were “no atheists in foxholes” was never true). I said that if the world had more interfaith foxholes, we would have less need for foxholes, and more room for faith.
Just last week, the first Sikh Marine Corps recruit allowed to have a full beard and a turban to cover his unshorn hair during basic training, graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. The Marines were the last hold-out, and other services already allowed that. However, all of the hundreds of changes to military rules and policies related to “religious accommodation in the military service” began with that original Religious Apparel Amendment, driven by the story of the camouflage kippa in Beirut. The path was not always straight, and sometimes it seemed like it was one step forward and then two steps back…but the final outcome was extraordinary success in terms of the free exercise of religion, and the beginning was in very many ways the story of the camouflage kippa, made by a Catholic priest for me.
There were many other Jewish elements to the story of the attack and its aftermath, including my very presence. I arrived in Beirut on Friday Oct 21 to hold a memorial service for SSGT Allen Soifert, the first Jewish Marine to die there during our operations as part of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force. We had approximately 1300 personnel in our US component, alongside the British, French, and Italian troops that were also part of the force.
I was stationed on the U.S. Sixth Fleet flagship, then the USS Puget Sound, in Gaeta, Italy, as one of the chaplains on the staff of the Sixth Fleet Commander. Even though the leaders of our US forces worked with the Governor of New Hampshire to get Soifert’s body home as quickly as possible, for a speedy burial in accordance with Jewish law, the others in the US contingent — hardly any of them Jewish — wanted a rabbi to hold a memorial service out of respect for the faith of their fallen comrade, so I was sent in.
It wasn’t easy to get into Beirut those days because of the war, so from Gaeta I went to Naples, flew from Naples to Sicily (Sigonella was the headquarters for Naval Air in the Mediterranean) and from there to Cyprus. From Cyprus I was flown by helicopter into Beirut, with the crew aware that our short flight from Cyprus was the most vulnerable part of the journey.
Because of the complicated trip to Beirut I didn’t arrive until Friday. My arrival was anticipated, so as soon as the helo landed, we held the memorial service. I remember inviting the other two chaplains — Fr. George Pucciarelli, Catholic, and Rev Danny Wheeler, Protestant — to join me to read the 23rd psalm, clasping our hands together to symbolize our unity in the face of the religious hostility throughout the area, and in so many other parts of the world.
The Marines told me I could begin my trip back to Italy the next day, but I told them I did not travel on Saturday, so would wait until Sunday. My Shabbat/Sabbath observance was the reason I ended up being there during the Sunday morning attack, a fact that did not go unnoticed in the stories that would be told and retold by other chaplains.
The death toll that day was horrific: 241 American military personnel — 220 Marines, 18 Navy, and 3 Army. One part of the story that is often overlooked is that the 18 Navy dead included 16 of our medical personnel – one doctor and 15 corpsmen – virtually our entire medical battalion. Navy medical personnel, like Navy chaplains, serve Marines, and the loss of our medical battalion made the situation even worse as we tried to deal with the scores of wounded personnel.
For the Marines this one day loss was the worst experienced since the Battle of Iwo Jima in WWII.
Minutes after the attack we experienced, the French compound was hit with an attack almost identical to ours: a suicide driver with a van laden with explosives. 58 more men were killed in that attack.
On the fourth day following these explosions, then-VP George H. W. Bush led a small White House team that visited us, to honor the survivors and mourn the victims. I remember wondering what the Vice President would say, because so much of what he might say could sound hollow. But his actions were perfect. He stood in front of the body bags, bowed his head, and mourned with us in silence. Immediately I thought of the Bible story of the death of two of Aaron’s sons, and the Biblical words, “And Aaron was silent.” Sometimes when there are no “right” words, no words become the most powerful response of all: we speak through silence in a language far beyond what we might say in human words.
The Sixth Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Martin, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General P.X.Kelley, accompanied the White House team. Admiral Martin made sure to find me, for two reasons. First, he introduced me to VP Bush, and that was when the VP invited me to write a report of the attack and its aftermath, “once my head cleared,” and then to send it directly to the president. He told me to put a note on top of the report, inside the envelope, noting that I was sending this report to the president at the request of the vice president.
Later I would ask the admiral whether I should really send it directly, or go through the chain-of-command, as I had been taught. Admiral Martin laughed and said that at my rank it would take forever to go through the chain of command between me and the president, so that I should just follow the directions of Vice President Bush.
A few weeks after I sent the report I received a beautiful response from President Reagan, thanking me for my “words and deeds,” and adding that he hoped I wouldn’t mind if he shared my report with others. I showed the letter to my Admiral, who smiled and said “that means he’s going to let Nancy read it.” We all laughed, but some time later we received a video from the White House, a recording that showed Reagan had read the report in full as a keynote speech to the Jerry Falwell convention of 20,000 Baptists, “Baptist Fundamentalism ”84.” He said he was going to “read another man’s words,” identified me as the author, and then read the complete report.
During the speech, a group of about a dozen attendees went through with a pre-planned protest, unfurling a banner that read “bread, not bombs,” chanting the words at the same time. President Reagan was at the height of his power as the “great communicator,” and after the protestors were carried out he asked the crowd, “wouldn’t it be nice if some of that Marine spirit could rub off, and they would listen [to this story] about brotherly love?”
When I rewatch the video of this speech now, there is a poignancy that was missing the first time around — because now we know that even though at that point the president sounded like he was at the height of his powers, Alzheimer’s was lurking in the shadows, ready to pounce….
The second reason Admiral Martin sought me out represents one of the most human moments in all my Navy career. Martin was a three-star admiral who had been imprisoned for years in a POW camp in Vietnam, many of those years in solitary confinement. He had a very unusual career, because most POWs who returned to active service in the military were given non-operational assignments, such as the head of schools. The reason behind those assignments was that prisoners were automatically promoted during captivity, and then returned to a world and a military that had dramatically changed, at a rank they sometimes were not prepared to hold. But Martin “hit the deck running,” as we used to say, earning continuing promotions, including the third star that made him a vice admiral, and accepting his current assignment as Commander, US Sixth Fleet.
But those of us who worked for him knew that like most former POWs the experience had not left him unscathed. He worked as if he did not want to lose another minute, since he had lost so many years. He was professional, and still let his humanity show through acts of kindness and courtesy…but would snap back to duty mode very quickly.
With that background, his words to me in Beirut could not have touched me more deeply. With the hint of tears in his eyes, he took me aside, away from the others in the group — to apologize to me.
The Sixth Fleet flagship — the USS Puget Sound — had immediately become the center of operations for actions in the wake of the Beirut attack. His staff was in constant contact with all the military leaders on the ground. And yet, it took 8 hours before my family in Italy could be alerted as to whether or not I was still alive.
Just minutes after the 6:22am attack, my wife was called, and told about the attack, so that the first she heard about it would not be on the news. The Catholic chaplain, the senior chaplain on the staff, Fr. Bob Riley, called to tell her there was no reason to think I had been hurt, but the staff would keep her informed.
But it took 8 hours.
As luck would have it, my mother was visiting from the States. In fact, when we had brought her back from the airport in Rome, the phone was ringing off the hook at our apartment. Those were the days before cellphones, of course, so the ship had called me again and again. The news was that Soifert, the Jewish Marine, had been killed in Beirut, and I was to return to do a memorial service.
I later learned that every time the phone rang before my family finally learned the news that I was alive, my mother gasped, held her hand over her heart, and feared the worst. My wife — a good Navy wife — tried to reassure her, saying that bad news would be delivered in person, so what they should fear was a knock on the door. A phone call would either mean no news or good news.
The admiral’s apology was that it took so long to deliver news to my family — because, he told me, as the death count increased, he just didn’t know how to ask if his chaplain, the one person on his staff in Beirut during the attack, had survived. He didn’t know how to phrase the question without sounding like he cared more about me than about the hundreds of others who had died.
Eventually, a captain on his staff (very appropriately, a Jewish officer), figured out the way he should ask the question. He asked his Marine contact whether, given all the casualties, I would return to Gaeta on schedule, or stay in Beirut to help with the wounded and the survivors. When he was told that I had agreed to stay, he had the answer that I was alive. Immediately, my family was given the news.
I have many, many memories of this terrible attack.
For one thing, when we first ran outside our building to see what had happened, it was the first time in my life that I truly understood the expression, “I could not believe my eyes.”
The giant four-story building that I expected to see was so demolished that it seemed as if it had just disappeared.
Somehow I thought that I was looking in the wrong direction or had made a wrong turn, until slowly, finally, I could begin to focus and through the smoke and the air filled with dust, I could see the rubble, the bodies, and worst of all, the pieces of bodies strewn throughout the area.
I remember lessons in chaplains school, when we engaged in discussions about what we should do if we found ourselves ministering to the wounded and dying of faiths other than our own. What if someone Catholic asked me to administer last rites? What would the priests in the class hope that I would do, and then, what could or would I do, even knowing their wishes?
But with all of these thoughts and training sessions in my mind, no one I cradled in my arms or tried to comfort by saying medical help was on the way ever asked me for any specific religious rite. Instead, they asked me to promise that, if the worst should occur and they did not survive, I should tell their family that they loved them.
My strongest memory, however, is about Danny Wheeler, the Protestant chaplain who was stationed along with Pucciarelli, with the MAU.
Danny and Pooch each stayed in one of the buildings, and when I visited I would alternate, one time staying with one, and the next visit, with the other. This visit, for the memorial service, I was going to stay with Danny. However, Pooch told me he had something he wanted to discuss with me, so I should stay with him. That request might have saved my life, because it was Danny’s building that was hit, and he was among the small group of survivors.
In fact, Danny was the last person rescued from under the rubble — after being buried more than 5 hours.
I remember that Pooch and I were so sure Danny was dead that we had already agreed that when we made it back to the US, we would go together to visit Danny’s wife (his widow, in our minds).
But then, Pooch spotted Danny’s stole or shawl, the vestment that he wore when he conducted services. Seeing it on the ground partially covered, gave us hope that perhaps Danny was in that area, as well, and soon a large group of us were digging with all our might, until we found Danny, still alive.
Danny had no idea of the magnitude of the attack, assuming some shell or rocket had hit the part of the building that included his bunk. In my report of the rescue efforts I wrote that we were almost counting his fingers and toes, inspecting him to ensure he was whole. Then his first words were a question about his RP — his chaplain assistant. He wanted to know how his assistant was. We had to deliver the news that his assistant was dead. But I remember how many of the survivors first asked about others.
General Kelley, the Marine Corps Commandant, left Beirut to fly to Italy to visit wounded personnel in the hospital in Naples, and he took me with him. I walked with him, bed to bed, as he pinned purple hearts on hospital gowns. Then we parted ways, and I returned home to Gaeta, to my family.
However, my final memory from Beirut was the goodbye from Admiral Martin. He told me that by the time I made it home, the ship would be leaving for an official visit to France. He told me that he was giving me a direct order to “miss ship’s movement”: that he did not want me on the ship when it left Italy for its next port of call. Instead, he told me I should spend time with my family, and then meet the ship in France when I thought I was ready.
That was what I did.
C-span video public domain.
On October 23, 2017, the 34th anniversary of the attack, I had the honor of delivering the prayer at the ceremony held at the U.S. Marine Barracks (“8th & I”) Washington, DC.
We pray, meditate, reflect in different ways, but together mourn our dead, honor our wounded, and weep for the pain of their families.
We praise our heroes, past and present, too, for as World War II reporter Elmer Davis wrote, this nation shall remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.
34 years ago today, terrorist attacks took the lives of hundreds of the brave, in the American and French compounds of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force in Beirut.
They came in peace to a land at war. In the line of fire, they risked their lives to buy some time in pursuit of a dream.
Let us honor them by being brave ourselves: brave enough to fight when fight we must, but also brave enough to believe that through our words, our deeds, our lives, we’ll keep the dream of peace alive, and make the future better than the past.
And may we say, Amen.