Monday, May 25, 2009

Marine honors the memory of the fallen

Bear Cieri/Daily News correspondent
Bellingham Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal Stephen Russell.

By Michelle Laczkoski/Daily News staff
Posted May 16, 2009 @ 11:50 PM

To Stephen Russell, Memorial Day marks a day to stop, reflect and give due respect to the heroes who have served America.

Russell is one of those heroes.

The grand marshal of today's Memorial Day parade, Russell will pay tribute to all servicemen, especially his 241 brothers who died beside him in Beirut on a peacekeeping force in 1983.

Russell, who is now a retired Marine, survived a harrowing attack on Oct. 23, 1983, when two truck bombs struck separate buildings in Beirut, where American troops were housed. Of 241 Americans killed, 220 were Marines.

Russell was among the 60 Americans injured in the blasts. Just three weeks before he was set to return home, Russell was taken by medical helicopter from Lebanon with a cracked pelvis, broken femur and hand.

"I shouldn't be alive," Russell, 53, said last week from his kitchen table. "They said I wouldn't walk again. But I was determined to stay."

Just one year later, Russell returned to full duty.

"I fought it, I wanted to continue serving," he said.

Russell, a Bellingham native, promised his wife he would retire from the Marines and secure a comfortable life for his family.

"I loved every second of it except for that one second," he said, referring to the barracks bombing in Beirut.

Following his recovery at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Russell went onto Camp Geiger's School of Infantry. Later, he worked as a drill instructor on Parris Island in South Carolina.

Eventually Russell's injuries from Beirut "caught up" to him.

"I couldn't compete with my peers," he said.

The Marine Corps placed Russell on temporary disability. He retired from the Corps in 1994.

Settling back into civilian life with his wife and two children wasn't easy. It remains a struggle.

"I still feel sore, aches and pains," he said. "I toss and turn all night."

Jim Hastings, chairman of the Memorial and Veterans Day Committee, said the committee unanimously chose Russell to lead the annual parade.

"We wanted to pay honor to Marines who lost their lives in Beirut," Hastings said. "Having someone like that right in our town, he was an obvious choice."

Though Memorial Day "brings back bad memories," a humble Russell said it is vital to pay tribute to the nation's fallen.

"That's what my loyalty is all about, those guys, all 241, the dead," he said.

The parade will feature town officials, police, firefighters, bagpipes and several local high school bands.

Following the procession from the high school to the town common, there will be a ceremony with several speakers at the gazebo.

Russell will also speak and honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice.

"Many gave all, some gave a little and too many gave everything," he said.

Many have forgotten the attack in Beirut, but the terrorist attack is fresh in Russell's mind.

"Everyday, it's here," he said, pointing to his head. "People say, 'Let it go.' I have no desire to let it go. I was a part of it."

Michelle Laczkoski can be reached at or 508-634-7556.

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