This is personally a hard post. I’ve started this numerous times. In 1979 I signed up for the U.S. Navy. That’s how, as a scrawny 6 foot tall awkward fairly athletic young man, I found myself deployed off the coast of Beirut on board the USS Virginia in 1983 with 550 other guys. As I understood it the Russians, Iranians and Cubans were working together to incite civil war in Lebanon. Our ship and others were intended to provide necessary support if called upon. Little did we know what was to come.
The duty had been boring for us since we were barely steaming along at 2 to 3 knots, just fast enough for the sea water intakes to keep the flow through our systems. After a few of these kind of ‘hang out just in case’ situations, it rarely turned into much. We all took it for granted this would be more of the same. Complacency set in.
Friends and I filled our off duty boredom in a forward space of the ship for electrical distribution. As engineering types, it was an authorized space for us, it was quiet and, as slow as the ship was moving, our Dungeons & Dragons dice would roll cleanly. At the same time, a contingent of marines were ashore as part of a Multi-National Peace Keeping Force, bunking in a Beirut building, being sniped at from a distance with a ridiculous ROE. ROE is short for rules of engagement.
The ROE as passed down from the highest levels of the administration, at that time Ronald Reagan, no marine could carry a ‘ready weapon’; no magazines in place, no rounds chambered and no return fire until fired upon. Meaning, only after someone shoots at you, were you allowed to put your magazine in, chamber a round and take aim. Dead men can’t defend themselves. This posture established the attitude that was adopted by the entire command ashore. One that was non-threatening to the local populous and fostered a lax security posture.
Of course, on board ship, we didn’t know any of that. The only information about the world off the ship was through our once a month deliveries of mail that would include magazines and newspapers clippings from family or the Captains voice through the 1MC (shipboard general announcing system).
The only thing we did know for sure, we could see Beirut nestled in a natural harbor surrounded by green mountains just a couple of miles away. It was kind of a nice view when you had time and didn’t mind the heat. Some nights, we’d go topside on the main deck and watch trails of 50 Cal tracer rounds flying from a mountainside toward the city. And then we might see answering fire flying back up the mountain. Occasionally, you might see a trail of mortar fire launching from near a shoreline and speculate whether it was in our direction. We were comforted knowing we were out of range.
On one of our typical weekend mornings a group of us had our Dungeons and Dragons session interrupted by someone coming through the hatch telling us about the bombing of the barracks. Details were sketchy but they knew a bomb had blown up the marine barracks. About that time the Captain made the announcement that echoed through the hull of the ship sharing what little he knew on the 1MC. He requested volunteers to give blood and for shore work parties to provide assistance as needed.
Every man aboard was willing to do his part in some way. Every man aboard felt a crushing sense of impotency and absolute helplessness. We were all solemn and angry for a long while.
I never knew the full extent of how many were lost or what had actually occurred until several months later when I got back in port and home. Family had saved articles and magazines for me, but this was pre-internet and I never felt I had the whole picture.
I’ll skip forward to why I share this story. I never lost that sense of guilt that went with the helplessness. I was so close and yet, there was nothing I could do. I was caught up in doing something meaningless when they perished.
Intellectually, I knew that, even had I been ashore, I could never have changed things. But that didn’t keep this negative gnawing in the back of my head from showing up once in a while. The sense that all these men passed away while I was so close but out of harms way.
Most of the time, it would just be a malaise and mild depression. Sometimes it was triggered with things like Memorial Day, the flying of the flag, seeing a marine in dress uniform, or a news clip of a flag draped coffin coming home.
Was it an obsession, no. But it certainly contributed to the occasional imbalance I had with drinking. Because, when those memories of helplessness hit me, I wanted them to go away. And drinking was handy, legal and easy. It ‘took the edge off’. It helped suppress that feeling and bury the helplessness while I stayed inebriated.
Drinking never made it go away. Drinking never helped me to resolve to live with it. It never allowed me to see it for what it was and walk through it. It was only with time and sober thinking that I was better able to get a handle on it. Yes, the feeling comes back once in a while, but I manage it.
I hope this helps someone else.