Today marks a sad anniversary in U.S. history. It’s one that passes without much thought for a vast majority of Americans. It’s an anniversary I can never let go.
That’s what comes from working for 15 years in a military community, where tragedy on an almost epic scale is never far away. Jacksonville, North Carolina — the home of Camp Lejeune is like this. It’s a place defined by a young and transient population of Marines, sailors and their families, heroism and sometimes sorrow. It was also defined forever by a singular event that occurred on an Oct. 23 many years ago. And it also sets an example for how a community should respond in times of crisis. It’s still an incredible story, especially under the backdrop of conflict in the nation today.
The year was 1983. The incident was the bombing of the Marine Corps headquarters in Beirut, claiming the lives of 241 servicemembers — most from Camp Lejeune. It was an act of terrorism and a chilling preview of coming events.
In the city of Jacksonville it was a horrifying day — a Sunday morning people who were there at the time will never forget. I was far removed from Jacksonville at the time — working as a reporter and sports writer in Reidsville, North Carolina. I had just turned 24 and while I recall the incident, it’s a vague memory. That’s how it can be in the civilian world, I came to find out.
In fact, few in a civilian community can fathom what it’s like to lose more than 200 residents at one time — in the blink of an eye. And while troops based at Lejeune and other military installations around the world may seem like visitors, the reverse is often true. Military families join the fabric of a civilian community becoming youth league coaches, PTA members and civic pillars. Many who reside off base become neighbors and friends. Spouses of service members are in the work force. Their kids attend base and civilian schools and play on high school sports teams.
It’s a bond. So the massacre in Beirut was more than a blow to the military community at Camp Lejeune and New River Air Station but to civilian neighbors as well.
The ground had barely stopped trembling on that terrible morning when the questions of TV pundits and Washington policymakers began. What happened to security? Why were U.S. troops clustered in such a vulnerable position? Why were Americans in Lebanon anyway?
While fingers were being pointed in many directions in diplomatic and political circles, the queries were much more personal in Jacksonville. Who didn’t make it? Who did? What next?
The first two questions were answered quickly enough. The last one, well, it’s the kind of story of community leadership that we don’t hear enough of today, a time when our nation seems so divided. Sometimes a community must persevere without understanding.
After a visit by then-President Reagan and as the rest of the world dealt with the international implications of the Beirut bombing, Jacksonville, a town once divided by its base and civilian issues, joined forces to mourn the husbands, fathers, sons, friends and neighbors who died. As a result, Jacksonville and Camp Lejeune were bound by a commitment to preserve the memory of the fallen.
The differences that sometimes divided military and civilian residents no longer seemed as important as those things the two have in common. As neighbors embraced neighbors, they also began to embrace what it means to be a part of one community.
Moving forward the military and civilian cultures worked together and still does. It has visual reminders. On Jacksonville’s city medians memorial Bradford pear trees were planted, one for each servicemember killed in Beirut and Grenada. It’s hard to drive through Jacksonville knowing the story behind those trees and not be moved.
Today, along the highway where the Bradford pears stand, is the Beirut Memorial, an outgrowth of the new spirit of community between civilians and military in Jacksonville. The names of those killed in the bombing are listed. One is Lance Cpl. Johnny Copeland of Burlington, who graduated from Cummings High School. His family now lives in Snow Camp. A solitary soldier stands at one end and a large concrete wall carries the ironic words, “They came in peace.”
The Beirut Memorial was completed not very long before I moved to Onslow County in the spring of 1992 and began working for the Daily News. Every year an observance is held at the Beirut Memorial. Survivors return, community leaders gather, speeches are made and wreaths are laid. It’s an incredible memorial, a solemn site by a busy highway that is remarkably quiet no matter the time of day. It’s a site that too few Americans know exists. I wouldn’t know had I not worked and lived in the community myself. I’ll always believe the most important lessons I learned as an adult sprang from what I gained by living near Camp Lejeune for all those years.
There are myriad takeaways from the Beirut bombing regarding policy, security and rules of engagement. There are lessons about loss and sadness. And there are examples of overcoming, human spirit and the ability to rise above tragedy to build something larger.
Some of those lessons apply no matter where you are.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Portions of this are from an editorial I wrote a couple of years ago for the Burlington Times-News. We should always remember the lessons of Beirut — and Jacksonville. Peace.