Stafford, Va. man aided Beirut bomb victims
The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
By the time that day was done, 241 service members were dead, the United States was ushered into a new era of terrorism in the Middle East, and Truman was contemplating the most horrific hours of his 21-year military career. A crew chief with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162, Truman was part of a United Nations peacekeeping force in war-torn Beirut.
Now 51, and a State Department security analyst living in Stafford County, Truman recalled that fateful day and its aftermath in a recent interview.
The bombing “was one of those, ‘Are you s--tting me? I-can’t-believe-this-was-happening’” moments, he recalled.
At 6:22 a.m. on Oct. 23, 1983, not far from the amphibious assault ship, a man driving a Mercedes box truck loaded with 6 tons of explosives blew himself up at the barracks. The blast killed 220 Marines, 18 Air Force and three Army service members; 100 more were injured.
Within five minutes, Truman and his crew were awakened to get their helicopters aloft to aid with medical evacuations.
But Truman wouldn’t fly that day.
A gunnery sergeant who knew that Truman had prior emergency medical training ordered him to help with casualties instead. That exchange, between a “Gunny Clopper” and Truman, was noted in Eric Hammel’s book, “The Root: The Marines in Beirut.”
The first of the injured were airlifted to the Iwo Jima within about 15 minutes, Truman said. They were moved below to the hangar deck for treatment; some were dead on arrival. A temporary morgue was set up in another hangar.
Of the injured, “most were crush injuries, shrapnel from brick, scrapes, broken bones, compound fractures,” he said.
“The first guy I saw, a Marine still in his PTs [physical training sweats], wasn’t too bad with mostly scrapes and scratches.”
Many of the wounded “were in pain and in shock. We were just helping whoever we could.” The ship’s doctor orchestrated the care, helping Truman and other medics with procedures they hadn’t done before.
As the wounded arrived, Truman’s EMT training kicked in: “I switched everything off and focused on the person injured.
That’s what I needed to do.”
A healing decision
Truman was born in California; his father served in the Air Force, and the family eventually wound up in Georgia. He joined the Marine Corps after his junior year in high school there under the Corps’ delayed-entry program.
Three weeks after graduation in June 1980, he was in boot camp, “standing on the yellow footprints at Parris Island, [S.C.].”
“I wanted to be a machine gunner,” he said. But his older sister suggested he try something that would help him get a job when he got out.
“I always liked working on cars,” he said, so helicopter mechanic seemed like a good choice.
In 1981, Truman was assigned to Marine Corps Air Station New River in Jacksonville, N.C., where he was working toward qualifying as a crew chief.
One day, his roommate asked, “Hey, you want to become EMTs? We could be on the rescue squad, and it’s a good way to meet women.” It was a three-month school. He was a quick study and became a cardiopulmonary resuscitation instructor as well.
“I didn’t go to EMT training thinking, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go to Beirut.’ I really enjoyed the first-aid part of it,” Truman said.
At the time, he had no clue about what was happening in the Middle East, and Lebanon, in particular. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Beirut to help evacuate 600 civilians. The multinational peacekeeping force went in the following year.
In May 1983, Truman left North Carolina and boarded a ship bound for Beirut.
When he arrived, “it was hot. I remember flying around, looking at some parts of the town, thinking, ‘Wow. This had to be a beautiful place at one time ’ In some areas, you could see that there were bullet holes everywhere” from military factions fighting.
Marines, along with French, Italian and British troops, were among the group of U.N. peacekeepers.
Truman’s unit split its time between the Iwo Jima, and a Marine outpost called Rock Base on the Beirut airport tarmac.
Most days, “we were shuttling supplies and moving the Marines” who were training Lebanese troops, he said.
During downtime, “we’d sit, drinking beer and watching the fighting in the [nearby] Chouf Mountains.”
As the weeks wore on, Truman says, the fighting worked its way down the mountains, “and they started shooting at us. That’s when it wasn’t fun anymore.”
The base was hit by the occasional mortar round. One day, “while I was flying, I got shot at by an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade.] I saw it coming; it dropped short” of his helicopter, Truman recalled.
In the weeks leading up to the bombing, several Marines were killed by mortar and sniper fire.
The night before the attack, he’d been to the Marine battalion barracks for dinner.
'Don't let me die'
Truman doesn’t remember how many patients he worked on that day, but one Marine with grievous wounds stuck in his mind.
“He was laying on a gurney, with his shirt off, shoulders crushed, a compound fracture, cuts on his head, a sucking chest wound.”
The ship doctor needed Truman’s help to insert a chest tube to relieve the pressure. The man “was coming in and out of consciousness. He was screaming, and I was trying to comfort him,” Truman recalled.
“I was holding his hand and he was saying ‘Don’t let me die.’”
Truman told him, “You’re not going to die, Marine. You’ll be fine,” and moved onto the next stretcher. He never got the man’s name, but would see him again.
Truman shipped out of Beirut in November 1983. Ten years later, at the annual gathering of veterans at the Beirut Memorial at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Truman spotted him across the room.
“I saw him, and I was thinking, ‘I know you.’” The two men got to talking; soon Truman realized that it was Don Long of North Carolina, the Marine on the gurney.
“I said, ‘I helped save you.’ He cried and thanked me.” They still see each other occasionally at the annual October reunion hosted by the Beirut Veterans of America and the Beirut Connection, a families’ group.
Truman served in the Mediterranean on Navy ships from 1982 to 1985.
He married his wife, Laura, in 1984. The couple has two adult daughters.
In 1986, he served with the Presidential Helicopter Squadron, HMX–1 at Quantico, and again, from 1997 to 1999.
He was a Marine One helicopter crew chief for President George H.W. Bush during 1989 and 1990.
During the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, Truman was working at Henderson Hall, the Marine Corps’ headquarters in Arlington.
“I remember the plane flying over and a loud explosion,” he said.
Truman and a chaplain drove the short distance to the Pentagon, where Truman, who was in uniform, helped gather small parts of the plane for analysis by the FBI.
Truman retired in 2002 as a first sergeant, then joined the State Department, where he still works.
Truman says he thinks about Beirut when the anniversary of the bombing comes around. On Sunday, he joined a group of veterans and family members at the Beirut Barracks Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects to those killed. And he planned to head to Camp Lejeune for the ceremony at the memorial there this week.
One other thing still saddens him.
“Yes, 9/11 was a tragedy. Everyone remembers. But nobody remembers what happened to us in Beirut. We’re like an afterthought.”
Beirut Veterans of America: beirutveterans.org/wp
Beirut Barracks Memorial: arlingtoncemetery.mil
Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431 / firstname.lastname@example.org