JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — The Marine Corps' top general said Wednesday the deadly Beirut barracks bombing 30 years ago helped define the start of America's war against terrorists.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, survivors and friends gathered at a memorial bordering Camp Lejeune that honors the victims of the bombing Oct. 23, 1983. Before Sept. 11, it was the deadliest terrorist attack on Americans.
Many of the 241 Americans killed were members of Camp Lejeune's 24th Marine Amphibious Unit. Soldiers and sailors were also among the dead. A terrorist attack the same day against French peacekeepers in Lebanon's capital city killed 58.
In the barracks attack, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives into the military barracks. That attack and one on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut six months earlier that killed 52 signaled the start of a new kind of war, Amos said.
"The nation was not expecting this. There was a new kind of warfare – the threat of radical extremists being able to target military and civilian personnel with weapons of mass destruction for political, religious and personal gains. It was a new way to attack the West," Amos told hundreds of people. "We will never forgive, nor will we ever forget."
American, French, British and Italian troops had been deployed to Lebanon to try stabilizing the country bloodied by a civil war between Muslims and Christians allied with Israel.
Then-President Ronald Reagan ordered the battleship USS New Jersey, stationed off the Lebanese coast, to bombard the hills near Beirut in retaliation. Months later, the Marines were ordered out of Lebanon.
A U.S. investigation found the barracks bombing occurred because of lax security.
The bombing was blamed on the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran. A U.S. judge has ordered Iran to pay more than $7 billion to the families of victims, who continue trying to collect from Iranian assets in the United States frozen or hidden for decades.
Hours before the commemoration, Ed Ayers, of Scranton, Pa., visited the memorial for his own reflection. The wall is etched with the names of the dead and the words "They Came in Peace."
He said he served in Beirut before his unit was replaced by the troops who were attacked. Ayers said he still believes the sacrifice was worthwhile, though the Middle East remains wracked by bloody strife.
"I think this is something we're going to see for quite a long time," said Ayers, 54. "It's a shame. I don't think we're the world's police. We should determine what our own values are."
Stephen Baynard also visited the memorial to remember – except he doesn't actually remember the event.
Baynard was almost 2 months old the day his Marine father, James Ricky Baynard, was killed in the bombing.
"I don't know. I've never met him. Everything I know is from what other people tell me, so it's like I can just see who he was," he said.
President Barack Obama issued a statement Wednesday that echoed the words on the memorial wall.
"Our Marines and their fellow service members were serving in Beirut as part of a multinational force during the Lebanese civil war. ... They came in peace," Obama said. "The proud history of the U.S. military continues today, as our service members risk their lives around the world to promote freedom and security and to deter terrorism."
Former Marine Jeff Mosier was on guard duty in Beirut that fateful morning.
"We actually saw the blast and did not realize what it was a the time," Mosier said, recalling the friends and comrades he lost.
Dale Garner was asleep in his bunk when the barracks building "went from a four-story building to a 25-foot pile of rubble." Of the 15 men in the room, he was the sole survivor. Garner was medically retired from the Marines a year after the blast.
"Was it worth it?" asked the 51-year-old Palatka, Fla., man. "No. A lot of men lost that day. A lot of good friends, a lot of brothers."
As he looks at the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he doubts there can be peaceful coexistence "with someone who theoretically hates you."
"We may go in peace," Garner said. "We're not accepted in peace. They don't like us."
The North Carolina Department of transportation is honoring the lives lost 30 years ago, working with the city of Jacksonville to lay out a Beirut Memorial Grove along U.S. Highway 17 with more than 200 cherry trees – one for each service member who died.
"It will help ensure that all who travel through this area will continue to remember the precious lives that were lost and that their service remains at the very heart of this community," said Transportation Secretary Tony Tata, a retired Army general.