Friday, December 23, 2005

A Christmas Story

Journal Entries from the Battlefield

BY Brian G. Lukas

Editor’s note: The name Beirut became a one-word symbol for the war torn Middle East of the late 1970s. Civil war had erupted in Lebanon in 1975, the result of clashes between Christian and Muslim groups, including members of the Druse religious sect and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and had escalated over several years. In 1982, Israeli troops invaded Lebanon; the two countries had already fought south of Beirut. As well, Syria had occupied the country since 1976. In 1983, the United Nations dispatched a multinational peace-keeping force, including U.S. Marines, to Beirut. The Marines left Beirut within a year because of terrorist attacks; on Oct. 23,1983, a truck loaded with explosives crashed into the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit Headquarters compound, killing 241 Marines.

“The Marines in Beirut seem to have gotten lost in the history books . . . they had a difficult mission,” says TV photographer Brian Lukas. He, along with news anchorwoman Angela Hill and editorialist Phil Johnson, all of WWL-TV/Channel 4, traveled to Beirut in late 1983 to cover Louisiana Marines stationed there at Christmastime. Lukas kept journal entries of his tense times there, excerpted here.

Christmas 1983 was just a few weeks away. I would travel to Beirut with Angela Hill and Phil Johnson to film and edit stories on local Marines from the New Orleans area. It was a time before portable satellite uplinks and the Internet, so we carried videotaped messages from the Marines’ families back in the United States. Our ambitious itinerary also included production of a documentary about this war-torn area. But as fighting between the various factions escalated, that idea was abandoned. Armed militias set up roadblocks in various sections of Beirut. The Islamic Jihad decided to add another element to its arsenal of terror and brutality: kidnapping Westerners.

•If there is hell on earth, it is here in Beirut. At the same time that I arrived in Beirut, the French Embassy was hit by a car bomb, with 20 people killed. Later that night, a French military base was blasted by a bomb-laden truck. Ten French soldiers were killed, and 23 were hurt. The explosion lit up the whole area. Terror – it is sheer terror. I can see it on the faces of the residents who walk cautiously on the streets. Here in Beirut, teenagers carry assault rifles, mainly M-16s. On the streets, women cradle their children tightly in their arms, begging any Westerners for help. The city smells like death. There is a stench of rotting corpses and smoldering trash strewn about from buildings destroyed by the fighting in the streets. To realize the inhumanity of war, you have to look deep in the faces of the civilian population. Then, if you dare, look deep into their eyes. There you will find the horror of war absorbed deep within the soul. I look into many eyes here in Beirut.

•In the eyes of the young Marines, I can see the uneasy and uncomfortable situation they are in. The U.S. Marines’ position at the Beirut International Airport keeps them under daily sniper and artillery attack. I remember when I was in Washington, D.C., for a White House press function when many of these same Marines from the 22nd Marine Amphibious Unit invaded Grenada, a tiny island in the Caribbean. Now I am here in hell with them. The Marines, politically, are not invaders but are so-called “welcome guests,” strategically placed in Lebanon on a peace-keeping mission with the French and Italians as part of a multinational force. Our Marine contact is Capt. Dennis Brooks, the Marine public-information officer on the base, always “spring-loaded to say yes.” He remarked that the various militias near the Marine positions use their tanks like small arms fire: They quickly maneuver the tanks in firing position, release a shell and maneuver back quickly, then repeat the operation. Maximum destruction, I thought to myself. Total destruction was evident when we passed the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps – hundreds, perhaps thousands of Palestinians were killed here: men, women, and children. Our driver remarked, solemnly, that they were executed. The refugee camps are leveled, nothing remains, and where the victims of this civil war sought relief from the terror of war, only the bare reddish-brown earth remains visible from the nearby dusty road. Their graves are not even marked. It is as if they were never born.

•At night there is no time to dream; the evenings are fitful with the sounds of rifle fire. My bed is level with the window. Crazy, I thought, there are snipers on the roofs – one shot through the window and that’s it. I tried to sleep on the floor, but there is no sleep at night. The sounds of sniper fire and the thud of muffled mortar and artillery rounds are trying to find any “peace-keeper’s” position near the Avenue de Paris, the long, winding road facing the Mediterranean Sea.

•At one time Beirut played the Paris of the Middle East; now it plays a sorrowful tune of despair. My hotel in Beirut is owned by the Nassai family, Palestinian owners of the Commodore Hotel. The Commodore Hotel is on the Muslim side of Beirut. On the Christian side, the owner of the Alexandre failed to pay protection money to the thugs and every conceivable terrorist seeking consideration for the hotel’s existence. As a result, somebody exploded a huge car bomb in its parking lot, destroying the hotel. I couldn’t help but notice the line of cars ringing the Commodore Hotel here in Muslim West Beirut. Sometimes the cars were two or three deep. I quickly learned that these vehicles were buffers to prevent any car-bomb attacks on the Commodore. The ring of vehicles and payoffs couldn’t stop the instruments of distant destruction. My hotel room in the Commodore is on the fourth floor, room 405. I could not enter the room without noticing the shift in the door and several large cracks running down the length of the wall. A little later that day, I learned that room 405, my room, had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade just two weeks earlier.

•There is no sanctuary in this city. It’s a sad place and a sad time. Beirut is a city defined by fear, a city bisected by the green line – Christians in the East, Muslims in the West. This is a noisy, depressing, dangerous and disconcerting place to work. I tried not to sleep last night. It’s been several nights since I’ve had any sleep. The last thing I wanted was to be asleep when a car bomb went off and then to be buried under the rubble of concrete and steel from the top five floors. I often fall asleep at the dinner table. Veteran journalists from Europe and the U.S. networks in the hotel remark that this is one of the scariest wars they’ve covered. There is no “commuting” to this war; death and destruction are all around us.

Blackened pockmarks of war are carved into the façade of every building. The city is gravely wounded. And now a new threat is employed by the terrorists: They are kidnapping journalists and teachers at the American University in Beirut. A note was posted on the front bulletin board as we left the hotel. It was a warning from the Islamic Jihad. In very simple words, the note said that all Westerners must leave Beirut or “we will make the ground under your feet move.” It was a direct threat to destroy the hotel where the Western press reported the war. This is the same group that claimed responsibility for bombing the U.S. Marine base here in Beirut, and the U.S. embassies in Beirut and Kuwait.

•The war is escalating now. (A few months later, the Commodore Hotel would be completely destroyed by shelling and car bombs.) The American Embassy was heavily damaged by another car-bomb attack. Forty people were injured, and eight were killed in the suicide attack. The front of the embassy building, facing the seashore, is covered in what appears to be a seven-story green shroud. It hides the embassy’s exposed interior from probing eyes or people that pass through the zigzagged row of 55-gallon metal drums filled with dirt. The metal drums are defenses against another suicide attack. Marines are positioned throughout the building. Another contingent of Marines is stationed just across the street from the embassy. An American flag blew quietly in the wind next to a Marine guard watching the pedestrian movement in front of the embassy. The image of the American flag and the Marine standing with the sun setting on the Mediterranean Sea gave the drab gray seashore kind of a splendid appearance. In a melancholy way I felt a strong connection with home. The obvious presence of the American flag waving in the warm breeze made me feel very thankful that I live in and would return to the United States shortly. And if there is ever an image of the Marines in Beirut that will be forever stamped on my mind, it is that one single Marine and the American flag rippling in the wind next to him.

•On the corniche, in front of the American Embassy, the Marines are routinely targeted by snipers. It becomes very nerve-racking that at any time death may come by a sniper. As I filmed the area I noticed a small bunker with several Marines standing guard. One of them was Cpl. Brad Pellegrin from Slidell. It is the Christmas season, and he is making the best of a very bad situation by lining his bunker with makeshift ornaments. I forgot that we were nearing Christmas.

We were carrying messages from Cpl. Pellegrin’s family to give to him. It was a videotaped message to him from his wife, mother and child. As we showed the message to him I noticed an interesting effect on the other Marines . . . they gathered closer together to hear the family’s greeting to Brad. Closer the Marines came when Brad’s son said, “Daddy, I love you and miss you.” We played the videotape again and again. That’s when I realized that Brad’s family was now family to all the Marines that gathered to watch his videotape in front of the destroyed American Embassy. His family was their family; his son was their son or daughter. The Marines had a Christmas family now . . . and it was amazing to witness a little bit of loneliness disappear as they looked on. Christmas is family . . . even in Beirut.

•The makeshift Christmas ornaments lining the bunkers in front of the destroyed U.S. embassy were a welcome relief. It was a simple reminder of the hope that peace existed. Off in the distance, on the Mediterranean Sea, the sunset cast a shadow on the battleship New Jersey. The broad, flickering light from her was the firepower from her massive guns unleashed on the Druse militias, who rocketed the Marine base at the International Airport on Beirut’s southern edge. We would find out that a Marine was severely wounded; later he died.

•Overnight, hooded Shiite Muslims and their Druse allies drove Lebanese army units from most of their checkpoints on the Muslim West Beirut commercial thoroughfares and residential neighborhoods. I woke up to a very loud mechanical clanking just outside my hotel. The sounds of Lebanese military tanks rolling pass the hotel window quickly eliminated the little rest I hoped to get.

•Reports indicate at least 90 people killed last night and more than 300 wounded in the fighting; in just two days more than 160 people were killed, mostly civilians caught in the cross-fire. It’s a sickness – hatred is a cancer destroying everything here.

•At the Marine base this morning I could see the visible impact of the shelling by the U.S. 6th Fleet on the mountain range surrounding the base. Huge billows of smoke rose as the shells hit their targets. Cpls. Herbert McKnight and Greg Nelson, both from the New Orleans area, said the Marine base was shelled by rockets overnight. Herbert was stationed in a sandbag bunker on the rooftop of the base. This bunker, accessible only by a ladder, is the highest point on the Marine base. It also appears to be a very vulnerable position, an obvious target for a sniper. Cpl. Nelson, from Slidell, manned a .50-caliber machine gun overlooking the Kalda mountain range near the rear of the base. Cpl. Brian Campbell, only 19 years old and from Lafayette, was quickly unloading supplies from a helicopter. The copters didn’t stay long . . . they couldn’t – mortars usually found their targets. Brian, Greg and Herbert, these young Marines, were reminders that wars are fought by the very young, often placed in horrific circumstances and forced to grow up quickly. Several times I asked them to move their helmet up so I could see their eyes while filming. “Son, can you move your helmet up just a little?” I said. I would later say, “Marine, would you push your helmet back just a little?” Eighteen, 19 years old . . . here in hell, when others of their age are probably wrapping Christmas presents and acting goofy back home.

But on the Marine base at the Beirut International Airport, the one focal point no one can pass without some reflection of what happened months earlier is the huge crater. That crater once housed the Marines in a four story building. Every time I moved past it, I thought of the young men like Greg, Brian and Herbert, and then I said a small prayer for the families of the 241 Marines that died here.

•The Marine base alarm is sounding. The Druse militias are firing mortars now. In a few seconds, we must make the decision to stay on the Marine base during the shelling and miss our satellite deadline or leave and walk into the chaos and madness of the streets. We decide to leave. A condition-1 alert has been initiated . . . there are incoming mortar rounds in the distance, and the front gate will be locked shortly. The Marine base is the target.

We had to leave quickly. But as I left the Marine base I noticed a small memorial in front of the former Marine barracks. Despite the imminent danger, I couldn’t help but stop, notice and film the small bouquet of light blue flowers ringed around a Marine-issued camouflage hat. Above the flowers was a small, white sign facing east, toward the city of Beirut. The small sign simply described the Marines’ mission in Beirut: To the “24th MAU, they came in peace.”

It’s a dangerous world out there. •
December 2001 - Vol. 36 - Issue 3 - Page 36 - #363

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Gold Star Mom, Beirut Veterans of America Mom

A group born of the grief of war weathers a tempest
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Star-Ledger Staff

The American Gold Star Mothers is a wreath-laying, hospital-visiting group of mostly elderly women who have lost a son or daughter at war. At meetings, its members rise to pledge allegiance to the flag, pray for peace and freedom, and ask God to help them bear "the cross of sorrow."

Through a history that dates to the years after World War I, the group has been scrupulously apolitical.

So when Judith C. Young of Moorestown began her term this year as the group's national president, she didn't expect the 20,000 hateful e-mails or the nasty phone messages.

She didn't think her organization would become a piñata for veterans groups, politicians and editorial writers. And she never imagined fretting over whether a group of gold star moms in their 70s and 80s would be heckled during a candlelight ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

"We've never had this much controversy," Young said last week as she sat in an arm chair in her Burlington County home and looked back at the first half of her term. "I'm the first president who's ever had to deal with it. Aren't I lucky?"

Two controversies erupted around her this year.

The first was of the group's own doing. A Filipino woman from New York was deemed ineligible for membership after her son was killed in Iraq because she did not meet the group's American citizenship requirement.

Newspapers and veterans groups denounced the Gold Star Mothers. The criticism was so heated, moms who attended a ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial were escorted by a veterans group to shield them from potential hecklers.

The second was a simple matter of mistaken identity.

Cindy Sheehan is the California woman who camped outside President Bush's Texas ranch this summer in an unsuccessful effort to force him to discuss the war that took her son's life.

Sheehan's anti-war group is called "Gold Star Families for Peace" -- close enough to "American Gold Star Mothers" to confuse just about everyone.

Opponents of the war began calling Gold Star Mothers' Washington headquarters asking for Sheehan, Young said. The supporters called to angrily denounce the mothers on the mistaken belief they had become anti-war activists.

"I know we have some members who are against the war and who support Cindy Sheehan," Young said. "But we're a nonprofit, completely nonpolitical group. It didn't matter. We had all these people calling our office to tell us we were slime balls and dirt bags. It was crazy."

The Gold Star has been a symbol of loss since World War I. That's when families first hung service banners in their windows with blue stars for each member serving in the armed forces. If a family member was killed in action, the blue star was covered with a gold one.

In 1928, after much planning, 25 women who lost sons in World War I formed a group to support each other and organize volunteer work at veterans hospitals. They took the name American Gold Star Mothers, Inc.

Young paid the terrible price for admission in 1983, when her son, Jeff, 22, was one of 241 Americans killed in an attack on a Marine barracks in Beirut. She keeps her son's picture on the wall of her dining room and a piece of stone from the barracks under a glass coffee table in her living room. She honors his memory by pouring her time and talents into the American Gold Star Mothers.

She became president of the group in June and will remain president until next July's national convention in Mount Laurel.

The controversies that swamped the Gold Star Mothers at the beginning of Young's term have cooled.

Young supported a successful effort at the convention in June to change the charter so a woman whose son or daughter dies fighting for the U.S. armed forces need not be a citizen to join the Gold Star Mothers. Two noncitizens, but not the Filipino mother, have joined so far.

The angry phone calls and e- mails have stopped, Young said.

"When it got to be a big stink, I thought, 'Well, fixing this is easy as apple pie -- let's just change the bylaws,'" said Georgianna Carter- Krell of Miami, a member of the board of directors and mother of a soldier killed in Vietnam. "We had our pride hurt and some hard feelings about the change, but I think we came out of it OK."

The other problem was not as easily solved. Sheehan certainly has a right to call herself a gold star mother, Carter-Krell said, so long as she doesn't use the name of the American Gold Star Mothers.

Young said the group has done what it can to distance itself from Sheehan. They have issued press releases and posted a statement on their Web site disavowing any association with Gold Star Families for Peace.

Young hopes she now can focus on the problems she expected to confront as president -- dwindling membership chief among them.

The American Gold Star Mothers had as many as 22,000 members in the years after World War II and the Korean War. Young and her husband, Jack, have a photograph of a Gold Star Mothers gathering at a Camden County banquet hall during that era.

There were dozens of more mothers at that local gathering than at national conventions now, she said.

Membership today stands at about 1,000.

The group includes younger mothers who suffered their losses in Beirut, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia and Bosnia. But the relative peace after Vietnam caused membership to decline.

Most members are mothers of men and women who died in Vietnam. They are in their late 70s or older. Young, 65, is the first president whose son or daughter was killed after Vietnam.

The group has seen modest increases in membership recently as mothers of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq join.

Recruiting new members is touchy.

Young said she checks the Department of Defense Web site every day for news about casualties from New Jersey. When she finds one, she sends the parents a condolence card. She makes no effort to recruit the mother, but she does tuck a business card inside the envelope. That way, the mother will know how to contact her if she's interested.

"It's not a sad thing when we get together, not like a bereavement group," said Joan Curtin, of Howell, who received a card from Young after her son, Michael, became the first New Jerseyan to die in the war in Iraq, in March 2003. "I just like to go to be part of the kinship of women who know what I've gone through."

Curtin is among a few mothers from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to join in New Jersey so far. Young thinks that will change with time.

"I've seen people handle the death of a child in different ways," she said. "Some want to plunge right in, but others are so consumed by grief they're not ready to go out and visit the local veterans hospital. We just want them to know that this group is here when they are ready."

Tom Feeney may be reached at (732) 761-8436 or