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'A vile act of terrorism:' Marine commander remembers Beirut attack

Oct. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Col. Timothy J. Geraghty (ret.) commanded the Marines in Beirut, Lebanon, when the barracks were attacked. (Courtesy Tim Geraghty)


Retired Marine Col. Timothy Geraghty still remembers in crisp detail the events of Oct. 23, 1983: the shockwaves that shattered the glass windows in his office, the color of the thick ash that hung in the air afterward.

Geraghty was the commanding officer of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., whose battalion landing team 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, took most of the casualties when a truck laden with explosives crashed through the perimeter of the Marines’ barracks complex in Beirut, Lebanon, and detonated. In all, 220 Marines and 21 other U.S. service members were killed. An attack on a French military barracks minutes later killed more than 70 French troops.

Now 76, Geraghty sees the terrorist attack on the U.S. peacekeeping mission in Beirut as the beginning of an era of international terrorism — one that many would fail to recognize until Sept. 11, 2001, when another terrorist attack struck the World Trade Center in New York. On the 30th anniversary of the Beirut barracks bombings, he said vigilance continues to be crucial to American security, and the selfless service of the Marines who perished in Beirut continues to inspire him.

Geraghty said he had been going over his daily schedule on that early Sunday morning when the bomb went off.

“I thought we had been hit with a Scud missile,” he remembered. “I went outside. My ears were ringing. Heavy gray ash, you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face. The Marine who was with me said, ‘God, the BLT building is gone.’”

Official investigations would later reveal that the explosion was the largest non-nuclear blast in history up to that point, Geraghty said, equivalent to 21,000 pounds of TNT.

The suicide bomber who attacked the Marine barracks was an Iranian national, and the attack was found to have been orchestrated by Iranian and Syrian extremists. What emerged in the wake of the bombings, Geraghty said, was that the the attack wasn’t an isolated incident but a carefully coordinated act of violence that targeted the peacekeepers for what they stood for.

“That was one of the most vile acts of terrorism in history up to that point,” Geraghty said. “It started a murderous new era of international terrorism.”

In the aftermath of the bombing, the investigations subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee released a report fingering Geraghty as guilty of “various serious errors in judgment” that left the 1/8 compound vulnerable to attack. Though then-President Ronald Reagan stepped forward to say that any blame for the attack rested with his office, Geraghty would ultimately resign in the wake of the tragedy.

“You deal with it and own up,” Geraghty said. “The point of it is, as a commanding officer, you know right away: I’m responsible. It goes with the turf.”

Nonetheless, he said, it was worth asking the question: Have the last 30 years made us less vulnerable to terrorist attacks of this magnitude?

Geraghty testified before the House Committee on Homeland Security in 2011 about the Iranian government’s continued support of terrorist activity around the globe and the continued interest from Iranian political leaders, many of whom have ties to the 1983 bombings, in attacking the American homeland.

“There’s been a lot of things stopped,” Geraghty said. “But the question is, how long can you stop someone who has this kind of determination?”

Geraghty, a Phoenix resident, will spend the 30th anniversary of the attacks near Lejeune in Jacksonville, home to the official Beirut Memorial. He’ll attend a candlelight vigil at dawn and join Marine Corps commandant Gen. Jim Amos in giving an address.

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