16 May 2008

Gaddo to Speak at Peachtree City's 10th Annual Memorial Day Celebration

The guest speaker at Peachtree City’s 10th Annual Memorial Day Celebration on Monday, May 26th, will connect the dots between today’s Global War on Terror and the 1983 bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Beirut, Lebanon.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, will talk about the connection between the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Beirut with the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the current Global War on Terror. As national president of the Beirut Veterans of America (BVA), Gaddo represents more than 1,000 service members and surviving families of the 220 Marines, 18 Sailors and 3 Soldiers killed in that bombing and the other 29 servicemen killed in Lebanon during a multi-national peacekeeping mission between 1982-84.

“There is a direct connection between the terrorists responsible for the Beirut bombing and the murderers responsible for September 11th, 2001,” said Gaddo, who was founding vice president of the BVA in 1992. “We have come to realize that the Beirut Bombing was the first major shot fired in the Global War on Terror. We made it our life’s mission to never let America forget that 270 good men died in Lebanon in the name of peace and freedom.”

Gaddo was a Marine Corps staff sergeant serving in Beirut with the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit at the time of the bombing. But for a cup of coffee, he would have been in the barracks when it was leveled by the truck bomb containing 12,000 pounds of gas-enhanced military grade explosives.

As a Marine Corps combat correspondent and photojournalist, he had a makeshift photo lab set up on the third floor of the doomed barracks, which was living quarters for more than 400 servicemen. At 6 a.m. on Sunday, October 23, 1983, Gaddo was walking from his tent to the barracks to work on several rolls of film he and his fellow Marines had shot.

“It was a quiet morning, quieter than usual,” he recalls, realizing later why that was. “The birds were singing, there was no gunfire in the hills around us. I was halfway into the one-minute walk to the barracks when I decided it was too nice a morning to start working before I had a cup of coffee.”

He turned around and went back to the Combat Operations Center (COC), grabbed a cup of coffee and sat at his field desk to plan his work. At 6:20 he began to rise out of his chair to head back to the barracks.

“I heard M-16 (service rifle) fire inside our compound,” he recalls. “Before I could comprehend why, I heard the loudest explosion I’d ever heard in my life. A second later I felt a rush of warm air on my face and I was lifted up like a rag doll and thrown back several feet. It felt like someone had hit me in the chest with a baseball bat.”

Fortunately, Gaddo had on his helmet and flak jacket, which absorbed a good deal of the blast concussion that had hit him. Dazed, he saw that the other Marines in his tent, who had still been sleeping, had been thrown on the floor and were thrashing in their sleeping bags. Thinking they’d taken a direct artillery or rocket hit, he scrambled them into their nearby sandbagged bunker while he investigated.

“I went out of the tent expecting to see a smoldering hole of a rocket or artillery round,” he said. What he saw was something he could never have imagined.

“I stepped out of the tent and saw a giant mushroom cloud rising several hundred feet in the air in the direction of the barracks,” he says. “I was still dazed but ran in that direction and noticed that the leaves on all the trees and bushes were on the ground.”

As he rounded a corner that led to the barracks seconds after the blast, the surreal scene is one he will never forget. “The dust and smoke was still rising but grey dust suspended in the air gave the scene almost a dreamlike appearance. Things seemed to go into slow motion. Where I should have seen the barracks I could see the air terminal of the Beirut International Airport. Then I focused closer and realized that the barracks was gone. A four story concrete and rebar reinforced building was simply gone and a 20-foot pile of smoldering rubble was left in its place.”
Gaddo recalls that between him and the rubble was a sea of debris, steel rods and chunks of concrete. Then he began to focus closer in.

“I saw a boot on the ground nearby. Everything was covered with thick grey concrete powder. I went to the boot and realized there was a leg in it. As I tried to uncover the leg, I found that it was connected to a torso, and nothing else.”

He ran back to the COC, where other Marines were beginning to emerge from rubble of other buildings that had been shattered by the blast. He reported what he’d seen to his boss, Major Bob Jordan.

“I told him the battalion barracks was gone,” he said. “Those words just weren’t comprehendible. It was like saying “The Twin Towers are gone” on Sept. 11, 2001. Those just aren’t concepts we were prepared to deal with at that time.”

Gaddo and his fellow Beirut Veterans understood all too well when they viewed the initial pictures of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. “The rebar and concrete, the grey dust, the carnage, the smells, the shock, it was all the same,” he reflects. He says that for servicemen who experienced the Beirut bombing and for families who had sons, husbands, fathers, brothers or relatives killed in Beirut, 9-11 was not as great a shock as it was for most other Americans.”

“We saw the face of the new threat to world peace and freedom in the face of the driver of the terrorist truck bomb that killed our servicemen,” he says. “The Marine sentry who managed to get some shots off at the truck saw the driver’s face as he drove the truck into the building. The driver was smiling. He smiled as he murdered 241 good men who were in Beirut for no other reason than to try and help bring peace to that land. This is the level of fanaticism we face in today’s War on Terror.”

Marines were first sent into Beirut in early 1982 as part of a multinational force to help evacuate 15,000 Palestinian fighters. That mission successfully completed, they left but were sent back within 10 days when the Lebanese president was assassinated by a car bomb. They were then assigned along with French, Italian and British troops as “Peacekeepers,” a new and undefined role for the U.S. military.

Their rules of engagement, devised and managed by civilian leadership and the National Command Authority, prevented them from taking any actions that made them appear aggressive. As such, they could not carry loaded weapons but had to keep ammunition magazines in their pouches on equipment harnesses they carried. And if fired upon, they could not fire back unless they cleared it through higher headquarters, which could take several minutes or more.

“The Marine sentry didn’t wait for orders on the morning of the 23rd,” said Gaddo. “When he saw the truck bearing down on his position, which was about 100 feet from the building, he locked and loaded and did manage to get a couple of rounds off, which is what I heard.” But the truck had momentum by then and the weight carried it into an atrium, where it detonated, bringing the building down upon itself.

On Memorial Day, Gaddo will reveal direct connections between terrorists who planned and carried out the Beirut bombing and those who conducted the September 11th homicides and who continue to carry on the terrorist tactics today.

“Terrorism is not something that started in Beirut and it’s not something that stopped after September 11th,” Gaddo says. “Terrorists call it an Islamic holy war. There’s nothing holy about it and to call it that is an affront to peaceful, law abiding people of the Islamic faith. They have chosen to interpret their holy book in such a way as to justify their criminal activity. Terrorism is a crime against humanity on a global scale, pure and simple. It is homicide, murder of innocent men, women and children.”

The Memorial Day Celebration unofficially begins at 8:30 a.m. with the traditional patriotic golf cart procession from the Gathering Place around Lake Peachtree to City Hall Plaza, the site of the official celebration. The public is invited to join the procession. More than 200 golf carts, many patriotically decorated, are normally involved and will leave the Gathering Place parking lot about 8:30 a.m. heading for City Hall.

Singing groups will begin performing introductory music at City Hall/Library plaza at 8:30 a.m. At 9 a.m. when the golf cart procession arrives, honors to the flag will commence, followed by a memorial wreath presentation by the local VFW Post 9949 and American Legion Post 50.

The top winner of the Kiwanis-sponsored Memorial Day student essay contest will read his or her winning entry and all top finishers will receive awards. This year’s theme is “The First Duty Is To Remember,” the motto of the BVA.

“The BVA exists to ensure that America does not forget that, in total, 270 of her finest died in Lebanon in the name of peace between 1982 and 1984,” said Gaddo. “For us, every day is Memorial Day.”

The 2007 co-winners of Peachtree City’s VFW Post 9949’s annual essay contest, the “Patriots Pen,” will read their winning entries as well.

The event is held outdoors at the VFW Memorial in City Hall/Library Plaza unless weather turns inclement, when it is moved across the street to the First Presbyterian Church. People are encouraged to come out, rain or shine.

“It’s a fitting way to honor the true meaning of Memorial Day before spending leisure time with family and friends,” Gaddo said.

The Kiwanis Club of Peachtree City, VFW Post 9949, American Legion post 50 and the City’s Leisure Services Division jointly sponsor this event. Call 770-631-2542 for more information.

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