Kokomo Marine visits Beirut bombing memorial
Wednesday, October 22, 2008; Posted: 02:41 PM7 Stocks You Need To Know For Tomorrow -- Free Newsletter

Oct 22, 2008 (Kokomo Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- RAGN | Quote | Chart | News | PowerRating -- When Jeff Handy landed in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1982, the devastation was nothing
like the young Marine had seen before.

He was among the first U.S. troops sent to Beirut by President Ronald Reagan. It was a peacekeeping mission to assist in the evacuation of 600 civilians out of Beirut when political unrest made the area unsafe.

"When we were coming into the airport in a [helicopter], the closer we got, we could see the buildings," Handy recalled. "They basically looked like Swiss cheese. There were holes everywhere. It puts you in a mood of 'this is it.'

"Being a young kid of 21, I never really been outside of Indiana or Kokomo. Just the devastation of Beirut -- it was crazy," the 1980 Western High School graduate said Thursday just before leaving for the Beirut Memorial near Camp Lejeune, N.C.

After the first deployment in 1982, Marines were called in again as part of a multi-national peacekeeping force while Lebanon's government had a chance to reform after its president's assassination. The deployment started quietly, but gradually hostilities among the many factions in Beirut drew the Marines into increasing levels of involvement. The hostilities peaked with a truck bombing on Oct. 23, 1983.

On that day, a 5-ton truck bomb exploded in a Marines barracks, killing 241 servicemen, including 220 Marines in what some say was the first volley in the global War on Terrorism.

At the memorial, Handy, along with families and fellow service members, will honor those who were killed in that attack.

It was the Corps' bloodiest day since Iwo Jima.

"We lived in a building that blew up," Handy said of the barracks destroyed by the truck bomb. "Our company lost the major part of our platoon, and 12 to 15 were injured.

The bombing drove the U.S. out of Lebanon without a military response to the bombing.

Handy, a member of Beirut Veterans of America, said military inaction may have led to an uprising among terrorists.

"I have mixed emotions," he said. "I'm still sad and hurt. We didn't do anything, no retaliation.

"It shows the Marines didn't do anything, and the country didn't do anything."

The memorial includes a wall with the names of American servicemen, some whom Handy served. In all from 1982 to 1984, 273 people lost their lives in the name of freedom.

A member of the Marines 3rd platoon Charlie Co. 2nd Engineers, Handy served in Beirut from October 1982 to February 1983 as a combat engineer.

Before he arrived, members of his company served as mine sweepers.

"Those guys were responsible for clearing the airport of all unexploded ordinances and they were everywhere," Handy said. "The first fatality was Cpl. Ragen. He had a hold of a cluster bomb and dropped it. It exploded, killing him and wounding several others."

The Marines decided at that point most of the mines were anti-personnel not anti-tank mines so they took an Amtrak, a military vehicle, through there and let them explode under the tracks.

"The closest we came was one day we were headed back into a wooded area to clear it out," he recalled. "We had machetes whacking at trees and saw these little things falling out of the trees. They were cluster bombs. None exploded, and we were able to get the place secured and cleared. That was the most intense it got for me."

Fortunately for Handy, he was shipped out of Beirut in February 1983, before the barracks bombing and the April American Embassy bombing.

"For years, I felt guilty," Handy continued. "When I was there, we were new and the Lebanese people liked us and wanted to see us there. Shortly after I left, the embassy got bombed and the relationship deteriorated."

Even though he was not there during the bombings, he remembers the devastation and the lives lost.

"I was really good friends with one man, Doug Held, who died in the barracks bombing," he said. "I knew some acquaintances in Charlie Company. Out of the three platoons, I was in the one in the back and didn't see a lot of other guys."

Handy has been attending the reunions since 2003 and has became friends with a lot of survivors of the bombing.

"Back in 2000, I starting looking for guys I served with. There were 13 of us. This year, we're looking at having 50 combat engineers there. They are guys I haven't seen in 25 or 30 years. That will be a lot of fun and heartache in the same play."

In 1988, a monument was dedicated at Camp Lejeune, the Marine base in North Carolina.

Each Oct. 23, survivors and relatives gather there at 6 a.m. with lit candles to read the names of those killed. At precisely 6:22, they blow the candles out.

"There's not very many people who remember Beirut," said Handy. "It's important we remember those heroes."