Sunday, April 12, 2009

John Rice Hudson USN Beirut Navy Hero

By Damon Cline

John Rice Hudson, by all accounts, had a promising future.

The 1981 graduate of the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine had a beautiful wife, a healthy newborn son and dreams of opening a family medical practice in middle Georgia. The 28-year-old Naval lieutenant and physician was well-liked for his easygoing personality and his peers admired his ability to excel at seemingly any task, be it surgery, making music or overhauling a car engine.

But his future was cut short on Oct. 23, 1983, when he and 240 other military personnel stationed in Beirut, Lebanon, were killed when a suicide bomber drove an explosive-laden truck into the U.S. Marines' barracks.

The attack – the deadliest single assault on U.S. servicemen since World War II – was largely forgotten by the public until 9-11 brought it back into the American conscience.

In the minds of Dr. Hudson’s family, however, it never faded from memory.

“For 99 percent of Americans, terrorism started on Sept. 11, 2001,” said Dr. Hudson’s son, Will, who was 8 months old when his father died. “For my mom and me, terrorism started on Oct. 23, 1983.”


Dr. Hudson was the eldest of Samuel and Losie Hudson’s three children. The family moved often during his father’s 23-year career in the U.S. Army, where he was a decorated veteran of the Korea and Vietnam wars.

The family eventually settled in Fayette County near Atlanta, where Dr. Hudson met David Anders, a fellow trombone player in the elementary school band. The two remained best friends through high school and were inseparable as roommates at the University of Georgia and MCG, which Dr. Hudson paid for through a Navy scholarship that required him to enlist after medical school.

Dr. Anders, who now practices internal medicine in Fayette County, said Dr. Hudson had an extraordinary personality.

“He enjoyed life to the fullest and wanted everyone to come along for the ride,” he said. “When you get together with people and talk about John, even 25 years later, you can’t get two or three minutes before somebody has a big belly laugh over something he did.”

His antics, including wearing a gorilla suit to the student center and strolling into his anatomy finals playing his trombone, tested the patience of administrators but provided comic relief to his stressed-out classmates.

“His friends have told me he was the guy who made everyone loosen up and enjoy themselves,” Will said.

Those who knew him cited an almost childlike innocence.

“John had a real dry sense of humor, but he was a very caring person” said Dr. Bob Parrish, former MCG chief of pediatric surgery and founding member of Code 99, a band Dr. Hudson played with for two years.

Dr. Hudson was a sophomore in 1979 when he met his future wife, Lisa, at an Augusta night spot. He had gone to pick up an amplifier he loaned to a friend but ended up staying once he saw the 23-year-old registered nurse from Milledgeville, Ga. He called her the next day and the two hit if off immediately.

“He was so unpretentious,” Lisa recalled. “He was probably the smartest man I've ever known, but he was so unpretentious about it.”

The two discussed marriage, but Dr. Hudson initially wanted to put off a wedding date until after completing his military commitment.

“He made up his mind he was going to complete medical school and pay back his time to the Navy before he settled down,” Lisa said. “But I interrupted that process.”

The two were married on Sept. 13, 1980, with Dr. Anders as best man.

“I lost a good roommate,” Dr. Anders said. “But she got a good one.”


Dr. Hudson enlisted in the Navy, which provides health care services to the U.S. Marine Corps, after completing the first year of his residency at MCG. The newlyweds moved to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., where Will was born on Feb. 15, 1983.

Having grown up an Army brat, Dr. Hudson was comfortable with military service. However, he was far from the average recruit.

Will recalled one particular story relayed to him by his father's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Larry Gerlach, whose injuries during the barracks bombing made him a paraplegic.

“My dad would drive the officers crazy because he wouldn't put his boots on,” Will said. “He told them, 'These boots are putting blisters on my feet. If I was seeing a patient who had blisters like these, I would tell him to stop wearing these boots.' My dad was a doctor first and foremost.”

Dr. Hudson's service was uneventful until then-President Ronald Reagan ordered the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment to participate in a multinational peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, which was in the midst of a civil war.

He left for Beirut on April 9, 1983. The Marines set up their headquarters at the Beirut International Airport and were initially successful at preventing attacks from militant factions operating in the country.

However, as the year wore on, it became clear to Dr. Hudson that militants were becoming increasingly confrontational.

“Rockets and artillery are coming into our area but we don’t shoot back because we’re not supposed to be in a war, but we are in a war,” he said in a taped message to his wife on Sept. 5. “We’re in a combat war zone.”


Randy Gaddo was a 30-year-old staff sergeant and combat correspondent when he served in Beirut, which many of the 1,200 Marines referred to as “The Root.”

He said Dr. Hudson was well-known around the compound.

“Everybody knew who the battalion surgeon was,” said Mr. Gaddo, who now lives in Peachtree City, Ga. “All the medical people were considered very special people, but he was the only qualified doc on shore. The other guys were called docs, but they were really medical techs.”

Most of Dr. Hudson’s skills went unused early in the deployment. On one recording he said he was unable to practice “99 percent of the knowledge” he learned in medical school. Even depression was rare among the troops.

“They like being Marines and they like the job they have to do,” he said. “They motivate themselves. I’m really impressed with them.”

However, Dr. Hudson became concerned about his fellow troops – and his own wellbeing – as the skirmishes intensified. Marines no longer came to his basement clinic with sore throats and earaches; they now had bullet and shrapnel wounds. In an Aug. 31, 1983 postcard to Dr. Anders, he said he was worried about “coming home in a box or altered state,” and that “things are so different here, more than anything you could ever imagine.”

And he continued to express his dismay at the rules of engagement. Weapons were constantly pointed at the Marines, but they were prohibited from actively engaging the enemy unless fired upon. Dr. Hudson wrote about the futility to Sen. Sam Nunn, then chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services.

In one of Dr. Hudson’s last communications, a tape sent to a freelance reporter in Atlanta, he referred to the troops as “sitting pigeons.”

“We actually can watch them build a bunker by day, see them put ammunition into the bunker, and you know what’s going on,” he said on the tape. “They can kill, maim, seriously injure Marines and sailors, and then – once they’ve shot – you have the option of shooting back.”

Dr. Hudson reunited with his wife and 6-month-old son in Greece while on leave from the base from Aug. 20-28. It was the last time they would see him.


The Root was peaceful during early dawn on Oct. 23, 1983. The cacophony of distant artillery fire had fallen silent.

At around 6 a.m. Staff Sgt. Gaddo had stepped outside his bunker to enjoy the morning sun before walking to the barracks, where he planned to develop eight rolls of film in a makeshift photo lab on the second floor.

“I started walking over there – it was less than a minute’s walk, maybe a couple hundred yards – then I just stopped,” he said. “It was just such a beautiful morning, very quiet. I just thought it was too good of a morning to go inside, so I turned around and went back to get a cup of coffee.”

The decision saved his life.

At approximately 6:20 a.m., a truck packed with explosives accelerated through the compound’s gate, barreling past two sentry posts and another gate before crashing into the lobby of the barracks. The Marines, under strict rules of engagement, barely had time to load and shoulder their weapons before the suicide bomber detonated explosives equivalent to six tons of TNT.

“I heard a couple of shots go off, then I felt the heat of the blast,” Mr. Gaddo said. “The shock wave threw me back like a rag doll. I thought we had been hit by an artillery shell.”

Those not killed by the blast were crushed when the four-story, reinforced-concrete building collapsed into a heap of rubble.

Seven time zones to the west, the sun had set on suburban Atlanta. Earlier that day, Dr. Anders proposed to his girlfriend, Kenya, in Stone Mountain, Ga. He had alluded to the pending engagement in letters to Dr. Hudson, and had asked his childhood friend to be best man at the wedding.

He went to sleep that night unaware his friend was already dead.

“I was getting into bed shortly after midnight and my sister mentioned something about a bombing in Beirut,” Dr. Anders recalled. “I was just hoping that it wasn’t going to be too much work for John – that he didn’t have to do too much triage. Later we learned it was much worse, that the whole compound had been attacked.”

Recovering the bodies took several days. Dr. Hudson was found on day two, inside his sleeping bag.

Ms. Hudson feared her husband was dead the moment she saw news footage of the destruction. Those fears were confirmed by a visit from two Naval officers.

“They came up to the door, just like they do in the movies,” she recalled.

Her husband’s body was returned to the United States two weeks later and buried at her family’s dairy farm south of Milledgeville, an area where he hoped to one day build a home and practice medicine.

The U.S. government ruled in 2003 that the attack was carried out by the militant Islamic group Hezbollah with backing from the Iranian government.

Military analysts say the attack was America’s first brush with “fourth-generation warfare,” in which ideologically motivated insurgents use guerrilla tactics and civilian populations to create tactical dilemmas for an enemy. The insurgents’ strategy is to achieve victory not through superior military strength, but by convincing the enemy’s political leaders that victory is either unachievable or not worth the human toll.

President Reagan withdrew the troops less than five months after the attack.

“We pulled out, so in a way, it showed them their tactics worked,” said Mr. Gaddo, currently the national president of the Beirut Veterans Association. “It was really a modern-day watershed event. We’ve seen identical elements in the wars after 9-11.”

Will met Mr. Nunn for the first time at a charity event in Atlanta last year. To his surprise, the former senator remembered the letter his father wrote 25 years ago.

“He said, ‘That letter will haunt me for the rest of my life,’” Will recalled. “He said, ‘Your dad was exactly right. He knew exactly what was going on.’ ”


A scholarship fund was started in Dr. Hudson’s name shortly after his death, and in 1987, the clinic at the U.S. Naval Supply School in Athens was renamed in his honor.

The building’s plaque rekindled memories in Dr. Sam Richwine, a 1977 MCG graduate who completed his surgical internship and residency at MCG.

“It finally rang a bell that John Hudson had been an intern of mine when I was a general surgery chief there,” said Dr. Richwine, a plastic surgeon in Gainesville, Ga.

The Athens native hopes the memorial remains after the 58-acre Naval School property is transferred to the University System of Georgia in 2011 for use as an MCG-UGA medical campus. (Damon: Is there any question? If so, STET.)

“I think it would be great if we were somehow able to keep that name somewhere on campus,” he said, “not only to honor John as an MCG grad, but also the gift of his life to the country.”

Ms. Hudson never remarried.

“I’ve never had another best friend like him,” she said. “I miss my friend more than I miss my husband.”

She and Will moved from Milledgeville to Augusta, where she worked as a nurse until completing MCG’s psychiatric nursing program in 1995. The training allowed her to open a counseling practice for women with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Setting her own schedule gave her the flexibility to attend Will’s sporting events and other school functions.

“He's the reason I'm alive, that's the truth,” she said. “Every day that I got up after that was because I had him to take care of. He was my motivation to move on.”

Will, who married in June, recently started a professional recruitment firm, Complete Recruiting Solutions LLC in Atlanta. He also has political aspirations, which stem directly from the loss of his father.

“I think some of our leaders make decisions without really thinking about the impact they may have,” he said. “When you know what it feels like when those decisions go bad, it makes you think a little more carefully and thoughtfully.”

Several of Dr. Hudson’s friends stay in touch with his widow and son, including classmate Dr. Allan Panter, a Gainesville, Ga., resident who practices emergency medicine.

He said Dr. Hudson would be proud of his son.

“I can’t say enough about Lisa’s parenting,” said Dr. Panter, who dropped in to visit Will at Furman University whenever he was passing through. “Will is well-rounded; he seems to be a complete package.”

For Dr. Panter, spending time with Will is almost like spending time with the young man’s father. Almost.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to meet anybody like John Hudson,” he said. “If you ever meet someone like him in your lifetime, you’re fortunate.”

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