As this year’s October 23 40th anniversary of the attack approaches, I pray that some of my memories can be used in programs, ceremonies — and sermons. I pray we remember this attack, mourn the victims, and celebrate the courage and humanity of the survivors who risked their lives to rescue their brothers.
In the first moments after the 6:22 a.m. attack on October 23, 1983, most of us ran out of our building — one about 75 yards from the barracks directly hit by the suicide driver — to do what we could until medical help arrived.
I had been brushing my teeth, wearing trousers and a t-shirt. When the building shook, windows exploded, and the doors came off their hinges, I “hit the deck,” thinking it was our building that had been hit by a mortar or a shell. When I got to my feet and others were slowly beginning to stand as well, we took a moment to give thanks that the building had withstood the attack. Only then did we begin to hear the screams from the other building, and realized what we had experienced had only been a result of the explosive force of the blast “next door.”
Fr. George Pucciarelli, the Catholic chaplain for the MAU (Marine Amphibious Unit — a unit that today would be called a MEU: Marine Expeditionary Unit) paused only to grab and put his purple stole around his neck, because he knew he would be administering last rites. At the same time he put it on, he yelled “follow me,” and we both ran out to a scene of unbelievable destruction and carnage.
The four story building across the way was completely demolished. Later the investigators would say that the blast — one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, the result of a suicide driver driving a van packed with explosives, under compressed gas pressure — had actually lifted up the building, which then collapsed and fell apart.
We didn’t know how long it would take for medical help to arrive, but it seemed like an eternity. We did what we could, literally tearing our clothing apart to use pieces to wipe blood and dirt from the faces of wounded Marines. At one point, after tearing my t-shirt to shreds, I used the small black kippa that I regularly wore.
When we finally had a moment to catch our breath, “Pooch” (my friend, the Priest) tore off the top piece of his Marine camouflage cap, and brought it over to me, to wear. He told me that in that area of the world, where every religious group seemed to be gunning for every other group, he wanted our personnel to remember not only that we as chaplains helped everyone — regardless of religion, and regardless of whether any of the wounded claimed a religion — but also that we did it side-by-side, Christian and Jew. (Today there are chaplains representing other faiths, as well.) “Interfaith cooperation” was not some academic theory for us. It was — and continues to be — our mission, and our way of life.
For the two years before that 1983 bombing, congress had been debating a “religious apparel amendment” that would allow Jewish military personnel in uniform to wear “neat and conservative” head coverings, but it failed to pass. (The general rule back then was that Jewish chaplains could keep their heads covered, but not non-chaplains — and sometimes even chaplains were not allowed that right.) Senator Lautenberg and Congressman Solarz, the two men behind the amendment, had the story of the camouflage kippa read into the Congressional Record, and they later told me they thought that story was the tipping point for passage. Suddenly, the idea of a kippa in uniform was not just a question of uniformity, instead it became a symbol of unity: that despite all the religious and ethnic backgrounds of our military personnel, we were unified, working side by side, when the chips were down. That kippa became a symbol of how we were united in our fight for freedom, including religious freedom.
That same idea was part of a story I still tell about our presence in Beirut, in an area covered with the foxholes and bunkers that we and the other militaries had dug. I said that there were Christian foxholes, dug by the Lebanese Christian Phalangists, Muslim foxholes for other Lebanese factions, and the largely Jewish foxholes used by Israeli/IDF forces. But our US foxholes were “interfaith,” crammed with service personnel of all religions and no religions (believe me, I came to learn quickly that the old WW2 saying that there were “no atheists in foxholes” was never true). I said that if the world had more interfaith foxholes, we would have less need for foxholes, and more room for faith.
Just last week, the first Sikh Marine Corps recruit allowed to have a full beard and a turban to cover his unshorn hair during basic training, graduated from Marine Corps boot camp. The Marines were the last hold-out, and other services already allowed that. However, all of the hundreds of changes to military rules and policies related to “religious accommodation in the military service” began with that original Religious Apparel Amendment, driven by the story of the camouflage kippa in Beirut. The path was not always straight, and sometimes it seemed like it was one step forward and then two steps back…but the final outcome was extraordinary success in terms of the free exercise of religion, and the beginning was in very many ways the story of the camouflage kippa, made by a Catholic priest for me.
There were many other Jewish elements to the story of the attack and its aftermath, including my very presence. I arrived in Beirut on Friday Oct 21 to hold a memorial service for SSGT Allen Soifert, the first Jewish Marine to die there during our operations as part of the Multinational Peacekeeping Force. We had approximately 1300 personnel in our US component, alongside the British, French, and Italian troops that were also part of the force.
I was stationed on the U.S. Sixth Fleet flagship, then the USS Puget Sound, in Gaeta, Italy, as one of the chaplains on the staff of the Sixth Fleet Commander. Even though the leaders of our US forces worked with the Governor of New Hampshire to get Soifert’s body home as quickly as possible, for a speedy burial in accordance with Jewish law, the others in the US contingent — hardly any of them Jewish — wanted a rabbi to hold a memorial service out of respect for the faith of their fallen comrade, so I was sent in.
It wasn’t easy to get into Beirut those days because of the war, so from Gaeta I went to Naples, flew from Naples to Sicily (Sigonella was the headquarters for Naval Air in the Mediterranean) and from there to Cyprus. From Cyprus I was flown by helicopter into Beirut, with the crew aware that our short flight from Cyprus was the most vulnerable part of the journey.