Beiruit – 25 years ago today.
A perspective from a Marine and family that lived through the anxious days of tragedy and horror.
On Marines’ Dark Day, a Town Feared for Him
Source: Virginian – Pilot
Publication date: 2008-10-23
By MATTHEW JONES
ELIZABETH CITY,NC – On a Sunday morning 25 years ago today, Lance Cpl. Scott Perry was standing in a drained concrete moat in Lebanon, making a cup of coffee with his Marine buddy when a distant blast sent a shock wave that knocked them into each other.
The pair looked to the northern horizon, where a large mushroom cloud was rising from the direction of the Beirut International Airport. The news spread quickly, via radio and word of mouth: The Marine barracks there had been destroyed.
Perry and his fellow Marines were miles away, surrounded by Muslim militia drawing ever closer. So as they mourned their colleagues, they wondered if this was the beginning of an offensive that would spell their own demise. “You think: How do I survive now?” Perry said.
Nearly 6,000 miles away, Clifford and Becky Perry sat pinned to the television in their Hertford, N.C., home, praying for their eldest child and only son to walk across the screen. “Anxiety, anxiety,” Clifford Perry remembered. “We didn’t know where he was.”
The Marines had been in Lebanon since August 1982, as part of an international force responding to the Lebanese civil war. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut had been attacked by a suicide bomber the following April, killing dozens and leading to a U.S. bombing campaign. At about 6:20 a.m. on Oct. 23, 1983, a truck laden with explosives circled in front of the Marines’ airport barracks, picking up speed before tearing through the barbed-wire security fence, crashing into the four-story building’s lobby and detonating. The blast flattened the structure with what the FBI later called the largest non-nuclear explosion since World War II. The attack killed 241 U.S. service members, including 220 Marines, in the Marine Corps’ worst single-day loss since Iwo Jima. Several minutes later and several miles away, another explosion leveled a building housing French paratroopers, killing 58.
Among the U.S. dead were a handful of service members from Virginia and North Carolina, some from Hampton Roads. It would take some time before his parents would know that Scott Perry wasn’t among them. He was several miles to the south, hunkered down in a compound at the base of the Chouf Mountains with the rest of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment. They’d been there for several months, exchanging fire with Muslim militia. When the bombing happened and the enemy stepped up its attacks, the Marines hunkered down for what they thought was the beginning of a major battle.”You do just like you do in any other war. You have to resign yourself to the possibility of death,” Perry said. “You just hit a comfort level with that.” There was no time to digest the news of his colleagues’ deaths, he added, and while he knew his parents were worried about him, “my main concern was how to survive, how to get my fellow Marines to survive.”
At home in Hertford, Scott’s family and friends stared at their telephones and televisions in an excruciating limbo, unable to rejoice in his survival or grieve over his passing. Becky Perry rationalized that Scott must be alive because they hadn’t heard otherwise. Her husband theorized that Scott’s mission would have kept him away from the barracks.
“The probability of him being there was slim and none,” Clifford Perry recalled. “I told the wife at the time that he should not be in those barracks unless he was temporarily assigned or had been put in the brig. But when you don’t hear, you don’t know.” The Perrys spent that Sunday watching television footage of bodies being hauled from the rubble as the death toll grew. They jumped every time the phone rang. The next day, they returned to work – he as a power company lineman, she as a bank cashier – because they saw no point in brooding at home.
On Tuesday, they called a Washington number to see if anyone had word of Scott. They were told that his company was supposed to be elsewhere, but offered no guarantee. Becky Perry’s mother, meanwhile, heard a news report that some of Scott’s company had been stationed at the airport. Family, friends, neighbors and fellow church members in their town of less than 2,000 watched different television channels and pored over stories and photos in different newspapers for any clue. The elder Perrys had each grown up in the town, as had Becky Perry’s parents. Everyone knew Scott, everyone bore the worry. He’d wanted to join the Marines to see the world. If he had died, he’d done so doing what he loved. And so the thinking went.
The good news came in the middle of the night. At 4:40 a.m. that Friday, the phone rang. “He said, ‘Hi, I finally got through.’ ” Clifford Perry recalled. “We knew he was OK right then.” Scott had boarded a truck and traveled to an adjacent British- Lebanese position, where he was able to make a brief call before heading back to the fighting. They spoke for about two minutes, but that was enough.
By 7 a.m., the Perrys were spreading the word, calling everybody they could think of, who then called everybody else. Clifford Perry stopped by his friend’s hardware store to tell him the news. The friend then told the town via his outdoor sign: SCOTT PERRY IS OK THANK GOD! “He would post his specials out there,” Clifford Perry said. “When we found out, he posted his new special.”
Scott Perry stayed on active duty for two more years, then spent the next 17 years in the reserves. He went to college and worked for a while as a probation officer. He now works in debt collection and teaches self-defense and firearms to state correctional officers. He stays in touch with his former squad leader and has attended the annual Beirut memorial service at Camp Lejeune, N.C. “It’s like anything else that happens in your life. It’s a seminal event – then other things happen and, in time, it recedes,” he said. “You have to compartmentalize the experience, or you won’t survive the transition to the civilian world.”
Having become an informal student of the war that sent him to battle 25 years ago, Perry has pondered what many consider an opening chapter in the steady march of terrorist attacks leading to 9/11. He, however, sees the classic East-West battle going back much further, all the way to the Crusades. Soon after the barracks bombing, President Reagan condemned the attack, saying the United States would not bow to terrorism. The following February, however, he ordered the Marines home. Clifford Perry, himself a Marine veteran, has pondered that decision. “I often wonder if Ronald Reagan had made some more definite moves after the bombing, if he hadn’t pulled back. … It’s hindsight, but I often wonder where we would be,” he said. “If we had gone in and squooshed somebody then and there, we might not have lost all those people in the Twin Towers.”
In retrospect, I think Mr. Perry was correct. I can’t think of any active duty military personnel who didn’t want to go in right then and clean up the garbage that did this act of cowardice. I think the decision to “pull out the Marines”, after this occurred, was one of Ronald Reagan’s big mistakes. Withdrawl, to these extremists, always seems to embolden them more. God Bless our fallen troops and may their families be comforted each day by our amazing God.