Thursday, October 23, 2008

They Came in Peace

I still remember walking out of church 25 years ago today and hearing the news that someone had driven a truck loaded with explosives into a Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. I was young then, still in middle school in fact, but the memory sticks with me to this day. The attack made a powerful impression on a young boy.

A few short years later, I found myself stationed at Camp Lejeune, home of Battalion Landing Team 1/8 (a.k.a. 1st Battalion, Eighth Marine Regiment), and the memories of the attack on that unit were still vivid for my fellow Marines.

Still raw.

I spent almost six years at Lejeune between the Marine Corps and working as a reporter there after college. It wasn't a bad place if you had to be stuck somewhere in (or near) the military, and the 14 or so miles of beach put it way ahead of the alternative just up the road, Fort Bragg.

Through all of that time one of my most favorite places was the Beirut Memorial. Actually, there are three memorials to the 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers killed Oct. 23, 1983. The wall, a plaque and a living memorial of 241 Bradford pear trees.

According to the Camp Lejeune Web site: “At the Northwoods Park Middle School, a group of classes, taught by Mrs. Martha Warren, initiated a support project to write the families of the men who had lost their lives. These students also helped to raise funds for the memorial trees and became a focal point in this effort. A ninth-grader auctioned her Cabbage Patch doll and raised $1,500 for the project. One tree was planted for each lost serviceman along Lejeune Boulevard and the completed tree project was dedicated on March 24, 1984.”

The gray granite wall of the memorial resembles those the Marines saw every day on patrol throughout Beirut: broken and jagged. Set in the middle of the wall is a statue of a single Marine. Rifle in hand, dog tags hanging out he stares out into a distant horizon.

The wall beside him bears the simple phrase, carved deep into the Georgia stone: They Came In Peace.

It's a quiet place, the memorial is, tucked under a towering cathedral roof of Carolina pines and animated only by the wind whispering through the trees and the distant rush of Highway 24. But no matter what time of year you visit the memorial, there are always little tributes placed at the base of the wall. Flags, Teddy bears, a bottle of Jack or a six of Pabst with one or two of the tops popped.

Ten years ago, I visited the memorial about a week after the 15th anniversary of the attack. Tucked between the slabs was a letter. A letter a 16 or 17-year-old girl wrote to her father telling him how her life had been going since she last saw him when she was just 1 or 2. It also told him how much she still missed him every day.

So, if you have a free moment today in amongst the hustle and bustle of your life, perhaps you could spend it thinking about these young men who never had the chance to become old.