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Fred W. Baker III, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2008 –
Twenty-five years ago, Marine Lance Cpl. Jeffrey Nashton lay broken, burned and blind in a military hospital bed in Germany, the victim of a brutal terrorist attack that nearly killed him.
A nurse told Nashton that a Marine Corps general was stopping by to pin on his Purple Heart.
As the general stood by his bed, Nashton reached up to feel the four stars on the general’s shoulder, and then traced the letters of his nametag with his fingertips. The general was the 28th commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. P.X. Kelley.
Nashton asked for a paper and pencil. On it he scrawled the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fi” -- always faithful -- and handed it to Kelley.
The two Marines, now both retired, met again yesterday, this time on a grassy knoll under a clear, blue fall morning sky at Arlington National Cemetery’s section 59. The section is dotted with the white headstones of those who died when a terrorist slammed a truck loaded with explosives into a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 23, 1983.
Nashton, Kelley, and about 100 friends and family members, along with a handful of survivors, gathered at the cemetery for the White House Commission on Remembrance’s 25th annual tribute to the 241 Americans, mostly Marines, who died that day. The attack was part of a coordinated attack in which another suicide bomber crashed into a French military compound at the same time. Fifty-eight French soldiers died.
Nashton was one of three Marines in his unit to survive the attack that morning. His unit was part of the 1,800 Marines serving in Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping mission.
“It’s very difficult to express to people how it feels to lose a friend in combat,” Nashton said. “The whole idea of survivor’s guilt -- knowing that this person gave his life for something he truly believed in, how the flood of memories of that person gets burned into your mind -- is lost on people who have never experienced it.”
Kelley, who traveled to Beirut in the aftermath of the bombing, said he later took off the four stars that Nashton touched that day. He had them mounted in a shadow box inscribed with the Marine Corps motto, and he presented them to Nashton as he recovered at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“In my heart of hearts he deserved those four stars more than I did,” Kelley said.
An emotional Kelley strayed from his prepared remarks yesterday to address the audience directly and personally. Kelley told of how his father died when he was barely a teenager.
“I understand the pain. I understand the sorrow. I understand the heartfelt remorse that survivors have,” Kelley said.
Kelley said the bomb was mounted in dump truck and was the equivalent of 18,000 pounds of dynamite. He said he watched as airmen loaded the metal coffins on the cargo aircraft for the flight back to the United States and was overcome by the damage done by the attack.
“This was the largest peacetime explosion in the history of mankind,” he said. “It wasn’t just a small bomb.”
Kelley went on to serve as the chairman of the American Battle Monument’s commission and was in charge of building both the World War II and Korean War memorials. He also supervised the 24 overseas U.S. cemeteries.
“I know a lot about pain, about death, about sacrifice, about heroism,” he said.
There was one headstone, the general said, that he will always remember.
“It said simply, ‘To the world, he was a Marine. To his family, he was their world,’” Kelley said. “Let us never forget this is truly the home of the brave.”
Marine Brig. Gen. James M. Lariviere served as a reconnaissance platoon commander in Beirut. He said the attack would become known as the start of America’s long war against Islamic terrorism.
“They came in peace and died in a blinding instant, and their names are seared into our minds and into the pages of history,” Lariviere said.
“As we who live on continue to fight against Islamic terrorism in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, let us be mindful of their service and their sacrifice a quarter century ago,” he said. “And in doing so, we pledge that we will be Semper Fidelis, always faithful.”
Marine Col. Chuck Dallachie, commander of Marine Corp Base Quantico in Virginia and also a survivor of the attack, read the names of each family represented at the ceremony. Members of Marine Corps Junior ROTC at Mount Vernon High School, Va., laid flowers at each grave of those who were killed in the attack and are buried there.
Nashton read a poem written by a soldier in honor of a friend killed in combat titled, “I Remember.”
“I feel the grief of all the families of those Marines who were killed in Beirut,” Nashton told the group. “For 25 years I have held it. I just want to thank you for being my family.”
Nashton now lives in New York. These ceremonies are a commitment made to his fallen brothers in arms, he said.
“The importance of these ceremonies is that we made a commitment 25 years ago after the bombing not to forget the men that died. And that’s what we do. We’re not going to forget them,” Nashton said.
And, at the same time, the simple ceremonies offer some comfort to the families and friends of those who were killed, he said.
“Each one of these people has the same feelings, because they lost somebody at the same time, under the same circumstances, under the same conditions,” Nashton said. “It’s all mutual. They each know each other’s pain, so when they come together they can grieve. And it helps. It’s a healing process, which is still ongoing 25 years later.”