Gunnery Sgt. Dan Joy’s homecoming more than three decades ago represented the end of a war, but the beginning of a battle.
Joy is one of the survivors of the Beirut Bombing.
It is both a blessing and a curse.
“It gets harder and harder to talk about,” Joy said. “Seeing friends slaughtered in combat makes you look at your own self-worth differently.”
Oct. 23, 1983
Joy remembers the day clearly.
Taking a deep breath, Joy explained that he had just gotten off duty at the Lebanese University when the explosion that would kill 241 of his comrades rattled the early morning air of Oct. 23, 1983.
Sleep deprived from not only his duty, but also the constant bullet-dodging he and his Marines had done all week, Joy recalls the smoke he saw curling into the air from the spot where the headquarters building used to be. It seemed like a mirage.
“It was about 6:20 in the morning,” Joy said. “All I could see was a cloud of smoke. I was in disbelief. I figured I wasn’t thinking right.”
Joy and about 800 Marines and sailors of 1st battalion, 8th Marines, had landed in Beirut, Lebanon in April of 1983 on a peacekeeping mission.
The battalion quickly learned that the religious factions they were trying to keep peace between were no longer focused on just their enemy. They were also focused on their American protectors.
A truck loaded with hundreds of pounds of explosives was driven into the American compound, into the headquarters building.
The explosion destroyed the building killing almost every American inside.
“The blast collapsed the building like a house of cards,” Joy said. “I immediately started trying to get radio contact with the battalion, not knowing that no one was alive. I thought it was the frequency so I switched my radio to the alternate frequency and immediately heard everyone screaming into the handsets. It was chaos. Just absolute chaos.”
Just 24, Joy remembered his body going into auto-pilot after the blast.
He wasn’t thinking about firing his weapon or finding cover, Joy recalled. Muscle memory and intense training took over as he and his fellow 1/8 members tried to comprehend the magnitude of the situation.
“Everyone was so numb. We were all in awe and disbelief,” Joy said. “Every other hour there were more names coming out of someone who didn’t make it. The only thing I could think was, ‘This sucks.’
As we were digging bodies out of the rubble we were still taking sniper fire. Some guys went ballistic at this point and took over machine guns and just started spraying and praying.”
Nearly the entire command of 1/8 was killed in the collapse of the building, Joy said.
In the days and weeks following the explosion, the remaining Marines and sailors tried to focus on surviving, going home and working through their feelings.
“Peacekeeping was a misnomer. Everyone wanted revenge,” Joy said. “To this day I would volunteer to go back in a heartbeat. I can’t run anymore, but put me behind a good rifle with a good scope and I would do some damage.”
The Marines of 1/8 were replaced several weeks after the devastation, returning to Morehead City on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day.
Stepping off the boat to a crowd of people including his mother and sisters, was less of a homecoming than another punch in the gut Joy said.
“We saw all the people and the yellow ribbons, then we saw the guys from the advance party,” he said. “They had such solemn looks on their faces. Then we realized why.”
The friends who had returned before Joy and his men began naming men who had succumbed to their injuries after they had made it home.
The devastation of the realization that men they had found and thought were going home to heal had died was crippling, Joy said. Knowing that men he thought were safe would never celebrate another Christmas or see another birthday was heartbreaking to those who’d fought to keep them alive and get them to safety.
Joy has immersed himself in remembering his friends who perished through involvement with the Beirut Veterans Association and Beirut Memorial Advisory Board.
The first duty, after all , is to remember.
But the pain is still there.
The daily struggle is magnified each time the survivor list is shortened — this time due to natural causes.
He clings to those who understand his stories and understand his pain, like good friend Chief Darrell Gibson.
Gibson was one of the only corpsmen that stepped back onto the USS Iwo Jima to come home, Joy said.
To this day Joy leans on Gibson for support, knowing the corpsman has walked through the same battle he has, only seeing it through different lenses.
“All the corpsmen had were unit 1 bags, which were about the size of a bread basket,” Joy said, his breath shaking. “Those guys performed miracles with what they had. The unsung heroes of Beirut are the Navy corpsmen. Those guys would go through the gates of hell to get to an injured Marine.”
The Beirut Bombing had kept Joy from opening a large plastic tote for more than two decades because of the pain and memories within.
Joy gave a simple pause as he flipped through photos of men he once shared a rationed beer with.
Newspaper clippings of nearly everything relating to the bombing encourage a gentle head nod of disbelief.
A stack of cassette tapes Joy used to listen to while on duty or training solicits a short-lived smile.
“Sometimes when I hear a helicopter fly over it brings back the memories I am trying to not think of,” Joy said. “It makes you want to move to Idaho and live in the middle of nowhere out by the cornfields, where I don’t have to think about it.
“Every October, the butterflies show up in my stomach. It is very emotional. I think about it every day.”