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Brotherhood of Beirut Marines ‘brought me back home’

At the intersection of Lejeune Boulevard and Montford Landing Road in Jacksonville, is a place where the people in Jacksonville and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune come together to remember and reflect on events that affected the community at large. At Lejeune Memorial Gardens, visitors can view monuments memorializing the Vietnam War, the 1983 bombings of the barracks in Beirut and the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. (Cpl. Jackeline Perez Rivera/WikiCommons)

Thirty-six years ago on Oct. 23 in Beirut, Lebanon, 241 military members were killed during a peacekeeping mission when terrorists crashed a truck loaded with bombs into the barracks housing them. In total, 307 people lost their lives due to the attack, including 58 French military personnel who were also there for the same mission and additional U.S. service members who died as a result of injuries sustained in the bombing.

The Beirut bombing of 1983 was one of the deadliest single-days for the U.S. Armed Forces.

Every year since 1986 a remembrance ceremony has been held in Jacksonville near Camp Lejeune at what is now the Beirut Memorial in honor of those who lost their lives, many of whom were stationed at Camp Lejeune and part of the Jacksonville community.

While many surviving veterans of the attack were present for the 36th anniversary this year, for some the pain was still as fresh as the day it happened, which had prevented them from attending the ceremony in the past.

“I couldn’t come here for about 20 years,” said Jack MacDonald, a lance corporal who served at Beirut during the attack. “The first time I came here I was like a wallflower, way in the back, just stayed by myself. But then all my brothers started coming around, they brought me back home.”

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Many of the Marines who survived the attack have dealt with the memories with the aid of their fellow Marines.

Cpl. Dan Brown, a veteran of Beirut, drove from Fort Meyers, Florida to attend the remembrance for the second time. He was one of the Marines who struggled with the memory of the bombings, which he called a “traumatic time.” Many of the surviving Marines have issues stemming from the attack and coped with alcohol, among other things, according to Brown. However, it was three of his fellow Marines coming together that helped Brown face the memory.

“There are still veterans of the Beirut bombing who really seclude themselves and don’t want any interaction with the outside world,” Brown said. “It takes a lot to draw them out, as these guys drew me out of my shell about five years ago.”

It was Lance Cpl. Pablo Romero’s first time at the remembrance. Romero, who survived the bombing, drove down to Jacksonville from Trenton, New Jersey with his sister, Olga Romero, after she heard about the ceremony through the Beirut Veterans of America organization. The Romeros plan to attend the remembrance every year from now on.

“I never knew this was going on,” Pablo Romero said. “It’s humbling. I’ve been battling PTSD and this has been a little bit of closure and it has definitely helped coming back.”

Pablo Romero came looking for his long-lost brothers in arms.

“I found one of them,” he said. “It was very good, hopefully I can find another one, I’ve actually been looking for my staff sergeant, Kenny.”

For Cpl. Tommy Rutter and Lance Cpl. Harry Mincer, both Beirut veterans, the ceremony was also all about their brothers.

“It’s a remembrance of the ones we lost,” Mincer said. “Our friends, fellow comrades, and just letting people not forget what happened.”

Mincer, Rutter, and other veterans expressed gratitude toward the Jacksonville community for holding the event each year and taking care of the memorial grounds.

“They do a wonderful job,” Mincer said.

Mincer drives from Sayre, Pennsylvania, and Rutter from the Baltimore area every year for the remembrance. They spend the week in Jacksonville driving their motorcycles and enjoying the beaches.

“To see the community respond like this is very touching,” Brown said. “It means a lot.”

MacDonald lived and worked in upstate New York until he retired. Attending the ceremony, seeing the memorial, and experiencing the area’s support for military swayed him to becoming a permanent member of Jacksonville.

“I was so impressed with the way the community came together that I moved down here to retire,” he said.

For others, the Beirut remembrance is a time once a year to share in the grief of loss, but to also find comfort in understanding. Barbara Rockwall’s son, Cpl. Michael Sauls, lost his life on the deck of the Beirut Marine Barracks. She stood near the memorial wall with an arm around Phillip Amrhein, a veteran of the attack.

“It’s good to be here with them and their families,” Rockwall said. “Here we are again.”

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© 2019 The Daily News