26 Yrs Ago; A Stolen Soul

DocImage000000016My attempt here is to try and describe, best as I can, the events of the day that ripped the innocence from my soul, and has haunted me EVERY day since. Like many warriors suffering with PTSd, I also suffer from physical injuries and ailments from my time in harms way. But those are a side note compared to the psychological injury that has been burned into my survival brain. Below is the day that stole my soul:

On September 20, 1984, a brilliant sunny day at 11:44 AM my life was changed forever.  As I sat at a typewriter on the second floor of the American Embassy Annex in East Beirut preparing a duty roster. The crackle of gun fire erupted. Not particularly unusual for Beirut, but this sounded very close. As I rose to walk toward the balcony I heard the revving of an engine, and more intense gunfire. I grabbed my M-16, which was never far from my side, yelled for the people in the office to get down, and ran towards the sliding doors, as one foot touched the cool marble floor of the balcony I heard the screeching of tires, and the crashing of metal, then in an instant my world, and I, were turned upside down. I don’t remember much about the actual explosion, I think the concussion knocked me out as I sailed through the air. I remember coming to, buried beneath what was once the walls and ceiling of the office I had been in. I do not know how long I was unconscious for but when I awoke it was dark as a moonless night, and eerily quiet. I was bent in ways a body should never bend, but it appeared as though my body was intact. I felt no pain, no panic, just purpose; get myself out of here and help. I began to remove the debris I could move, slowly making my way from my dark cave to a light that had begun to shimmer through some cracks in the debris. As I came closer to the light I could smell the acrid smoke, and hear the screams, moans, and cries of the injured and dying. As I emerged from what I thought would be my coffin, what had been a brilliant sunny day was now clouded with smoke, ash, and debris floating through the air.

The walking wounded were everywhere, wandering dazed and confused trying to figure out which way to go. Others trapped beneath rumble, arms and hands outstretched pleading for help; many more lying motionless in pools of blood, various body parts strewn about. I found the center stairwell and headed to the third floor where I knew Mike Wagner and Ken Walsh, two fellow military men, had been. Feeling my way up the darkened stairwell I saw the shadows of bloody hand prints and smears on the wall, feeling the warmness of the wet blood on my own hands, hauntingly left behind by those fleeing the chaotic scene. As I reached the office that Ken and Mike shared I saw them both on the floor. It was obvious by their wounds that they too had been heading to the balcony doors as the blast occurred. Both men laid motionless, Ken back against the wall, a fairly large man, now crumbled, bent, and bleeding on the floor. Mike was closer to the balcony doors, large shards of glass embedded throughout much of his body; the only sign of life was a gurgle that appeared to be coming from the blood bubbling out of his mouth. My calling their names brought no responses, my touches elicited no motion. I knelt between them looking back and forth trying to figure out what to do. My mind whirled with thoughts. I know our training for these awful events dictated that you save the ones that can be saved and leave the ones who cannot. As I looked back and forth at these two bodies lying before me, bodies of once vibrant, jovial friends, I tried to block out the screams and cries of others, wanting to focus on these brothers shattered before me, but the anguished pleas of the injured became louder and louder, I could not wait, I had to decide, are these men beyond help, do I walk away and let them die so I can help others, or do I stay and not let them die alone in this hell. I stood, looked down one last time, praying to any God for some sign of hope I had missed before, but none came. My decision had been made and I turned and walked away. I would never see Ken or Mike again. Both died that day, with me looking on helplessly.

For the next three hours I and others went about pawing through what only minutes before were offices in the Annex, but were now just a shell of a building full of fire, and debris. We dug with our hands and carried people out on demolished doors and crumbled chairs, anything that could be used to carry a wounded body, gently lying them down in the triage area, before going back in to do it all over again. After what seemed like an eternity, but was only a few of hours, we were satisfied all the wounded were out, now came the task of removing the dead. A detail was assigned to carry out that gruesome task as I took a guard position at the entrance to the Annex to prevent unauthorized access to the scene. Even though the Annex had been blown up, people had died, and been horrifically maimed and injured; we Marines still had a job to do. We had to ensure that any and all classified material would not be compromised; we had to ensure some sense of security to the remaining diplomats, the buildings, and the grounds surrounding it. As I stood out in front of the embassy, flack jacket and helmet pulled hastily on, and an M-16 at the ready, I began to feel the heat of the day. I could feel what I thought was sweat running down my back and legs. As I tried to drink water, my mouth and lips began to burn; my vision began to narrow in, and blur. As the world began to spin I went down on a knee and then awoke with people removing my flak jacket as I lay on a hospital bed. My back felt as though a thousand bees had stung it, my body began to ache everywhere, and as they removed my flak jacket I saw the inside of it covered with blood, what I had thought was sweat running down my back, had instead been my blood.

After a few hours at a Lebanese hospital, stitches in my back, legs, feet, and a cast of sorts on my arm, I demanded to return to the embassy where I and my fellows Marines would remain on post for three sleepless days and nights standing guard over rumble and the shell of a building that had once been the Annex. We would continue to pick through the rumble, searching for classified documents that had been blown from their safes, and removing body parts and chunks of decaying flesh, which had begun to rot in the heat of late summer. On the third day reinforcements arrived and we were relieved of our duties. I would be taken to Germany for further treatment of my injuries before returning to Beirut in October of 1984. I would remain in Lebanon until November of 1984 when the United Statesevacuated much of their embassy staff and Marines to the American Embassy in NicoseaCyprus.

I had been in Beirut nine months before the bombing, there were many other incidents that occurred that still haunt me as well, snipers, mortars, the friends by day that turned to the enemy at night, learning to distrust everyone but your fellow Marines. These events do not happen and then simply disappear into the air. They are etched and ingrained into the inner brain. To be triggered and recalled by the slightest provocation to any, or all, of your senses that had been violated by the events.

This is but one of hundreds of thousands of stories that have left so many of us with deep psychological wounds, not a mental illness, but a wound sustained in the hells of war, in the defense of and on behalf of this country. We stood proud and have done heroic things, so why do I not feel like a hero 26 years later? Why do I still feel like I too should have died that day (part of me certainly did)? Why after 26 years do I still hesitate to claim the wounds inflicted upon me that day?  Ashamed of them versus being proud of my actions.

I can either keep on suffering or take control of my healing, I choose to reclaim the part of me that died that fateful day 26 years ago. To allow my soul to soar, to fully enjoy the life I so rightfully deserve.

Again thanks for those that made it this far in the reading…..you are why I do what I am doing, in helping you, whether I fellow warrior, or someone just looking to understand, I heal.

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2 Comments On “26 Yrs Ago; A Stolen Soul

  1. Joe Jansen Reply

    Rich,

    I hope it helped as much to tell it as it did to hear it.

    Thanks. And Semper Fi.

    Joe

  2. John H Murphy Reply

    Rich, I stumbled upon your site and work while looking through some Cheverus HS related items online. I was a graduate of Cheverus in 2001 and a student of your class, the one that went to see Saving Private Ryan, during your first year there.

    A few years ago I worked at MGH in the Psychiatry department and my time there opened my eyes, painfully at times, to the struggles facing veterans coming home. I often found myself thinking of “The Things They Carried” when interacting with these men and women. The weight of the experiences they have had is so clearly real and raw, how could it not be? The work you are doing is critically important not only to their health and lives, but also to our broader society as our veteran’s health and wellbeing should be a bedrock of our society. Regardless of political leanings it should be imperative to us all that the sacrifices and burdens experienced by people like yourself not be ignored. While I cannot claim to understand it because I have not been in a soldier’s boots, as a human, I do understand that life has many hurdles and challenges, so how could the experience of war not be something to be acknowledged as real and carried beyond those moments in time. I imagine it is so vast as to be almost undescribable. However, thankfully you are putting a voice to the experiences of many which is, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest endeavors a person can attempt to breath life into.

    On a personal note, as I mentioned, you were a teacher of mine and one I remember quite fondly. You were open and honest with your students, something few teachers are. You allowed us to question broader ideas in the world, debate the merits of concepts, and go past the simple facts of history into deeper discussions about the human experiences associated with those points in time. Your class was wonderful and thought provoking. You were a fantastic teacher. Also, while you may not remember this, my family was disintegrating during that year of HS. My home had become fairly volatile and at one point I made the decision to leave because it felt unhealthy for me to remain. You reached out to me in a way other teachers did not. Many of them attempted to interject themselves into the situation, debating the merits of my decision, which was something that simply made me pull further away. You, however, acknowledged what was going on, but did not try to rearrange my experience any further or attempt to solve it – it was not solveable. My point is, you allowed for me to know you were there and willing to help if I needed it and that was something I have not forgotten. I leaned on the simple knowledge that there was a teacher there that would take my hand if I asked for help. It made me stronger.

    That time passed. I went to college, then graduate school, and now am a healthcare consultant with a very productive, fulfilling, and most importantly, happy life. You were a part of a critical period in my young adult life during which a few misteps could have led me down a different path than the one I am blessed to be on. So..Thank you for everything and for making a scared and angry kid know that someone cared.

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