Jacksonville hasn’t forgotten.
While 35 years have passed since the Oct. 23, 1983 Beirut bombing, the date remains etched in the minds of community members – as well as the memorial that stands in tribute to the nearly 300 lives lost in the blast.
Jacksonville Police Department Lt. Sean Magill was just in middle school when the attack occurred but he has always remembered one number: 241.
U.S. forces were stationed in Beirut, Lebanon, as part of a multinational peace-keeping force when a truck bomb drove into the headquarters building of the U.S. military compound on that fall day. The building collapsed in the blast and killed 241 American service members. Another 32 men died later from their injuries.
It was the deadliest attack on U.S. Marines since the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II; it claimed the lives of Marines and sailors stationed at Camp Lejeune.
“I was 13 and in the 8th grade at what was then called Northwoods Park Junior High School when the bombing occurred, and was probably one of the few students at my school who didn’t actually know anybody who was injured or killed in the Beirut bombing,” Magill said.
But if you didn’t know a family directly impacted you knew someone who did.
Magill said the number of lives lost has stuck with him since he was a teen, but it was as he got older that he realized the full impact of that day on the community.
“Since I was only 13, the enormity of what had happened didn’t really register,” Magill said. “But, ever since Oct. 23, 1983, I’ve always remembered one number, and that is 241. That number has stuck in my mind all these years. When I got older and gained a better understanding of my community, I learned that it was the event that made everybody understand that Jacksonville is Camp Lejeune and Camp Lejeune is Jacksonville.”
The community came together Oct. 23 at 10:30 a.m. at the Beirut Memorial at Lejeune Memorial Gardens to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Beirut bombing.
Promise to never forget
Onslow County’s youth have been a big part of the community’s promise to never forget.
The students at Northwoods Park Middle School have had a connection to the Beirut Memorial since the beginning.
The seeds for the memorial were firmly planted, literally, when the idea of planting a tree to remember the service members killed was brought up by a Northwoods Park Middle School student.
That grew into a larger effort to raise the funds to purchase a tree for each of the lives lost and to plant them along the median of N.C. 24. The momentum and desire to honor those who died in the Beirut bombing never stopped.
In early 1986, a task force of area business leaders was formed with a goal to have a memorial built by Oct. 23 that year, which marked the third anniversary of the attack.
Ron Bower, a member of the Beirut Memorial Advisory Board since its beginning, said that as the decades pass it is up to the next generation to make sure people remember not only that the Beirut bombing occurred but what happened, why it happened, and the effect it had on the community.
And part of what Bower saw first-hand is how the community – military and civilian – came together as one city to do what needed to be done for the families in the days after the attack and to remember their sacrifice.
“I’ve never seen a community come together like this community did, and it is up to them to carry on that spirit,” Bower said.
‘An act of kindness’
Bower said that each life lost in the bombing was valuable and each person was a future contributor to this or another community, whether a coach or a teacher or small-town mayor or even a future president.
“All these things could have happened but when they died all these dreams and possibilities went with them. That’s the way I look at it and that’s why we need to remember,” he said.
One of the memories Magill has of that time is of his classmate, Shannon Parrish, and what she did to help get the funding for the memorial trees started.
Parrish, he recalled, had lost a friend or neighbor in the bombing and decided to auction or raffle off her Christmas present to raise money.
The auction of the Cabbage Patch doll – one of the most popular, big-ticket items of the season – received national attention but for Shannon Parrish Stilla, who now lives in Massachusetts, it wasn’t the big impact that she or her classmates were thinking of at the time.
“I don’t think that is what we were setting out to do,” Stilla said in a phone interview. “We wanted an act of kindness; we wanted to let the community know we were standing with them”
And while the auction of the doll raised a large amount of money, Stilla said what she most remembers is the contribution of the entire community. She said donations of $1 or $2 made as much of a difference as the large ones.
“What we have today came from everybody’s kindness,” she said. “Everybody contributed.”
Stilla is now a teacher and tries to instill in her students how one act of kindness can make a difference in somebody’s life, no matter how small that action may be.
“That is how we do change the world; one act of kindness at a time and doing what we can to contribute,” Stilla said.
Each day, and particularly this time of year, Stilla also remembers the tragedy in Beirut and gives thanks to the service members who dedicate their lives to serving our country.
What she hopes most is the families of the men who lost their lives due to the Beirut terrorist attack know their loved ones are remembered for their sacrifice.
“I want them to know that I still think about that day and their service to our country,” Still said.
‘They went to make peace’
Northwoods Park Middle students renewed their connection with the project this year and gathered recently for a yellow ribbon project. They first met to make yellow bows and headed out the next week to tie them onto the 273 trees that now make up Beirut Memorial Grove, which was created as a more permanent location for the living memorial after some of the original Bradford pear trees were damaged, died or removed due to construction.
The families of two of the servicemen killed in the blast — Navy corpsman David E. Worley and Capt. Michael Haskell — read about the yellow ribbon project by the Northwoods Park students and contacted The Daily News to express their gratitude for the students’ efforts.
Nancy Worley, the wife of David Worley, said the memorial that stands in Jacksonville and the efforts such as the yellow bows show those who lost their lives that day have not been forgotten.
“To have those men and the sacrifice they made for peace remembered gives my family great comfort,” she said.
Worley said her husband was 25 and had just re-enlisted when he went to Beirut for what was to be a peacekeeping effort while they and their two sons were stationed at Camp Lejeune.
“There was no reason to think anything like this would happen,” she said.
Current Northwoods Park Middle School seventh grader said participating in the project has given her a better understanding of what happened in Beirut and when she sees the trees now she’ll view them from a different perspective.
“It makes me feel sad about what happened but it is cool that one person could start this (memorial),” she said after the group was done with placing the bows on each tree.
Classmate Terrance Reese Jr. said the efforts that started the Beirut memorial are a reminder that youth can – and should – do things that make a difference in the community.
“Kids need to do our share in the world,” he said.
When asked what he had learned most about the Beirut attack, he only stops for a moment to think.
“They went to make peace.”
© 2018 The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.)
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