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posted: 10/23/2013 6:00 AM

Beach Park man recalls Beirut bombing on 30th anniversary of attack

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  • Former Marine Randy Lund now resides in Beach Park.

    Former Marine Randy Lund now resides in Beach Park.
    Courtesy of William Baltz

  • U.S. Marines PFC John Sexton, left, and Lance Cpl. Randy Lund manning a mortar pit on the perimeter of the Beirut International Airport in 1983.

    U.S. Marines PFC John Sexton, left, and Lance Cpl. Randy Lund manning a mortar pit on the perimeter of the Beirut International Airport in 1983.
    Courtesy of Randy Lund

By William Allen Baltz
Daily Herald correspondent

At 6:22 a.m. on Oct. 23, 1983, a horrendous explosion shook the Lebanese University building in Beirut and awoke 21-year-old U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Randy Lund of Zion, who was stationed there as part of a multinational peacekeeping force during the civil war.

"I thought a nuclear bomb had gone off," recalled Lund, who now lives in Beach Park. "Looking out the window, I saw a huge mushroom cloud in the direction of Marine headquarters. Calls soon came over the radio. Headquarters had been hit."

The headquarters and barracks for 1st Battalion 8th Marines Landing Team (BLT), where more than 300 U.S. troops were sleeping, had been demolished. The buildings were turned into rubble by a 19-ton truck loaded with the equivalent of 12,000 pounds of TNT driven by Ismail Ascari, a suicide bomber and Iranian national trained by Hezbollah, a small militia at the time.

Ascari steered his truck across the airport, plowed through a barbed-wire fence, sped between two sentry posts and crashed into the BLT lobby, where he detonated the bomb.

The powerful blast -- FBI said it was the largest non-nuclear bomb explosion since World War II -- lifted the entire four-story structure into the air before it collapsed, killing 241 American servicemen: 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. For the Marines, it was the largest loss of life in a single day since Iwo Jima in 1945.

Many of Lund's friends were among those crushed under tons of concrete and rebar.

"We remember 9-11 every year, as we should," Lund said. "But we must also remember the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. A lot of fine Americans who went there in peace were killed by a cowardly act of murder."

Lund and many experts believe the Marine barracks bombing 30 years ago was a seminal event in American history because it was among the first attacks in what has become known as the "war on terror."

It's a conflict that includes simultaneous truck bombings of U.S. embassies in the East African cities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998, and the World Trade Center complex in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, which ultimately led to the nation's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequent anti-terrorist operations.

The event also marked a turning point in the Marine mission in Beirut. It rapidly evolved from an operation primarily intended to keep peace in that war-torn city to one more offensive in nature, hampered by rules of engagement that failed to keep pace with a situation that, Lund said, became a "nasty war."

Lund dropped out of Zion High School in 1979 at age 17 to join the Marines after Iranian revolutionaries occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for what would be 444 days.

He landed in Beirut on May 16, 1983, the day before his 21st birthday.

In doing so, he joined the United Nations peacekeeping mission that formed in the wake of Israel's invasion of Lebanon on June 6, 1982. The goal was to create a buffer zone between Syrian forces and elements of the Palestine Liberation Organization operating there.

About the size of Connecticut, Lebanon had been in a perpetual state of turmoil since civil war broke out in 1976. Fighting between religious factions that raged throughout country was similarly compressed into Beirut, a 26-square mile city called "The Root" by Marines when they arrived Sept. 29, 1982.

Lund's unit, Alpha Company, manned checkpoints -- built and fortified with sandbags -- around the airport and inside the former Lebanese University. They also patrolled a dangerous slum near the airport that was teeming with snipers and a host of threats.

He said he and fellow Marines were pitted against an array of combatants, many highly trained and well-armed, including professional Syrian soldiers and Iranian guardsmen.

Deployment of Marines as peacekeepers in a situation like Beirut was unprecedented. They were supposed to be a neutral force, he said, but their mission was to help support the democratically elected Lebanese government, which included training the Lebanese Army.

"Our mission was a complicated one," Lund said. "The rules of engagement were a problem, too."

Outside the airport perimeter, according to the rules of engagement, ammunition magazines could be inserted into guns, but initially a round was not permitted in the chamber.

Marines could return fire if actually fired upon, and if the target was specifically identified. Even then, permission had to be passed up the chain of command.

The entire tenor of the multinational force peacekeeping mission that included French and Italian military units changed dramatically following the suicide bombing of the American embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983. It killed 17 U.S. citizens, including a Marine security guard and about 40 others.

On Aug. 28, Marines became targets during intense inter-factional fighting and for the first time returned fire. Alpha Company took the conflict's first casualties when a mortar killed Lund's former platoon commander and staff sergeant. Combat was fierce through September.

"We were involved in many firefights that included intense mortar, artillery and rocket barrages," Lund recalled. "Two of my friends were killed by an enemy 155 mm howitzer shortly after they stopped by the mortar pit another Marine and I were manning at the time."

When Lund and Alpha Company -- stationed at the university compound two miles from BTL headquarters -- received more information on the Oct. 23 attack, they could not comprehend the devastation.

"It quickly sunk in when we got word that the brother of one our Marines in Alpha Company was killed by the bomb. He took his brother's remains home with him," Lund recounted.

Lund said three things weighed heavily on his mind after the bombing: "The guys we lost, getting word to my parents that I was OK and getting home," he said.

Lund was especially concerned about notifying his family because the last letter he sent to them was from BTL headquarters, where he had been stationed for a time. "It took me a week to contact my parents, who had no idea if I was dead or alive."

Shortly after the Marine barracks bombing, Lund's unit left Beirut. The Marines pulled out in February 1984, and the multinational force was dissolved in March.

Lund re-enlisted in the Army reserve 2006 to contribute his experience and expertise, but a shoulder injury prevented his deployment to Afghanistan. During his rehabilitation, he also enrolled in a program at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his experiences in Beirut.

Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., where a memorial stands to the fallen, has commemorated the anniversary of the barracks bombing every year since the attack. Lund has attended four previous commemorations and plans to attend the 30th anniversary event on Oct. 23.

"I hope Americans remember those Marines who died in Beirut," he said. "They went there in peace and served honorably."

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