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thedrifter
10-19-08, 08:47 AM
Beirut Survivors 'Don't Forget'

By SHERRI ACKERMAN

sackerman@tampatrib.com

Published: October 19, 2008

TAMPA - Mike Toma had just come off fire watch duty in Beirut, Lebanon, and was asleep in his barracks when a bomb exploded less than 100 feet away.

It was 6:22 a.m. Oct. 23, 1983.

Somehow, Toma, a 20-year-old Marine lance corporal, survived the massive explosion caused by a suicide bomber who drove a truck loaded with 12,000 pounds of explosives through the lobby of a four-story First Battalion, 8th Marines headquarters.

"The first thing I remember was waking up in rubble," Toma recalled recently from his Lutz home. "I could see the sun filtering through the dust."

The United States lost 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers that Sunday morning. Toma didn't know it yet, but 15 men in his unit were dead. It was the largest terrorist attack against Americans until Sept. 11, 2001, and amounted to the largest loss of Marines in a single day since the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Twenty-five years later, the Beirut barracks bombing is fading into history, overshadowed by Desert Storm and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But Toma and a growing number of Beirut veterans refuse to let America forget.

The 45-year-old program manager for the Lockheed Martin defense plant in Oldsmar will join hundreds of veterans and their families Thursday in Jacksonville, N.C., to remember the victims of the bombing.

"I think about them every day," Toma said. "It's just one of these things in life you don't forget. It becomes a part of you."

The annual memorial began in 1984 near Camp Lejeune, from which most of the Marines in Lebanon shipped. With that country locked in a brutal civil war, President Ronald Reagan ordered Marines into Beirut to help evacuate civilians.

On April 18, 1983, a large car bomb detonated in front of the U.S. Embassy, killing 63 people, including 17 Americans. By October of that year, Marines were routinely targeted by snipers as they struggled to keep the peace between the warring Muslim and Christian factions.

Six months later, the Marine barracks were blown apart. The Islamic Jihad took responsibility for the attack, but it was later thought to be perpetrated by Hezbollah, a known terrorist organization in Lebanon.

The explosion cost Toma one eardrum and perforated his other. He had a partially collapsed lung and a fragment chipped off the top of one of his hip bones.

He drifted in and out of consciousness, eventually waking on board the USS Iwo Jima, where other Marines, including 20-year-old Corporal Michael Corrigan of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit, were helping with rescue and recovery efforts.

Corrigan, now a 46-year-old Tampa retiree, was a radio operator and driver who was taking some R&R on the Iwo Jima three miles offshore when the blast occurred. He spent the first day helping injured corpsmen.

"The walking wounded," Corrigan called them.

Some were on stretchers, some slept on green metal cots, some wandered aimlessly.

A day or so later, Corrigan was pulling bodies from the rubble.

"It was overwhelming," he said. "I was numb. We all were."

The bomb had torn a hole in the building that was some 30 feet wide and 40 feet deep, Corrigan said. It took days to find everyone. The experience changed his life.

"It made me realize that life is so very precious," Corrigan said. "That in a moment's notice it can be taken from you."

He left the Marines in 1993 as a sergeant and continued a career in public service as an emergency medical technician and, later, a sheriff's deputy. Corrigan married an Army nurse and has three sons.

Beirut was a ticket home for Toma. He re-enlisted in 1984, served until 1990, then graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in mechanical engineering. He is married with two sons.

This year's memorial will be his second. And he knows it can't be his last.

During a meeting a while back with other Purple Heart recipients, Toma met a Korean War veteran who couldn't remember what happened in Beirut.

Toma wrote down his memories five years ago for his sons. In the last sentence, he writes: "There is rarely a day that goes by that I don't think of the bombing in one way or another - it is ingrained in me."

For information about the memorial, go to www. beirutveterans.org or call Corrigan at (727) 742-0995.

Reporter Sherri Ackerman can be reached at (813) 259-7144.

Ellie