Seven years after a massive suicide bombing blew a U.S. Marine headquarters south of Beirut into a pile of concrete and dust and killed 241 Marines, the survivors soldier on amid the hardships of forgotten heroism and abandoned dreams.
The fleeting moment of horror that eventually drove the United States out of Lebanon still reverberates in their lives. The Beirut Marine veterans are hurting from long-healed wounds, from recurrent nightmares, and from fighting uphill battles to find jobs and restructure their lives.
Some men were discharged for heavy drinking. Others, who suffered minor injuries but stayed on to help dig up corpses and remains, say they still suffer severe depression and are reclusive and unresponsive to friends or parents of fellow Marines who have tried to stay in touch.
For many survivors, adjustment was forced by circumstance, but few can let go of those devastating seconds on that deceptively beautiful Sunday morning--Oct. 23, 1983.
The tough Battalion Landing Team building at the Marine barracks just off the highway to Beirut's airport had endured air raids when the Palestine Liberation Organization occupied it and concentrated artillery barrages when the Israeli Army held it.
But suddenly, a single, powerful bomb in a suicide truck reduced the four-story building to a tumbling mountain slide. The blast knocked the Marines out of their bunk beds and cots, hurling them out windows, not only killing 241, but injuring dozens more, some for life.
Staff Sgt. Steve E. Russell was in the lobby of the building when the suicide driver crashed through the gate of the Marine barracks. He had the presence of mind to yell "Hit the deck!" three times to his men before charging out.
But to this day, he says, he suffers from survivor-guilt complex and post-traumatic stress disorder along with his other injuries. He was discharged from the Marines on medical disability last month.
Russell woke up with his left thigh bone broken into three pieces, a fractured left ankle, a cracked right pelvis, a broken left hand. His left knee and leg were laid wide open and he lost a large chunk of his right thigh. "It looked like a shark had bitten through it," he said.
Sgt. Pablo Arroyo was contemplating getting up when a fellow Marine, Dana Spaulding, walked into their room on the third floor. "Everything just erupted," Arroyo said. But he heard nothing: Both his eardrums were ruptured instantly.
"I was buried under debris," he said. "It took me 15 minutes to get out from under. When I looked up, I saw limbs in the trees, arms and legs in the rubble around me." Arroyo's right leg was oozing like jelly, he had 21 puncture wounds and a hole in his head and he had lost all his teeth.
Flying to Frankfurt aboard a C-130 cargo plane, Arroyo remembers staring up at a thick canvas stretcher dripping with blood. "Pablo, I thought to myself, no matter how bad you are, you are better off than the guy above you. But I was beginning to hurt real bad by then. . . . I kept thinking: The Marine Corps, the Marine Corps, the Marine Corps. This pulled me through everything."
Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Nashton was one of the more critically wounded--a fractured skull, burns on his face, two collapsed lungs, deep cuts in his chest, a broken leg--and was barely holding on to life in the intensive-care unit at the Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany. When Gen. P.X. Kelley, the Marine commandant, arrived at his bedside, Nashton could not see him through his wounds and burns.
"They woke me up. Gen. Kelley leaned over and said who he was," he recalled. "I grabbed him by the collar and counted his four stars with my fingers. I motioned that I wanted to write something. Someone gave me a pad. I wrote with my left hand: Semper Fi. Always faithful. He knew. It was one Marine talking to another Marine, a language we both understood."
The Beirut survivors were given expeditionary medals, combat-action ribbons and Purple Hearts for their wounds. But none of this, it seems, helped some of them carry on with their lives. Russell, Arroyo and Nashton are three of those still trying to make the adjustment.
Russell could easily have obtained a medical discharge in 1983, according to an officer in his unit, but he stayed on with the Marines. It took him a year before he regained the strength in his legs and could run again. He became a drill instructor, channeling his motivation and energy into training other Marines.
But last year Russell broke the same ankle again and injured his knee. After a protracted dispute with the Marines over his health, Russell last month retired with a 30% disability judgment from the Corps he loved, ending an 11-year career that he had once hoped would continue all his life.
"It was kind of heartbreaking--he wanted to stay in," said his wife, Wanda, in a telephone interview from their home in Jacksonville, N.C.