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October/November 2003
FEATURE ARTICLE
   
 

Healing In Beirut

BY MICHELLE BAUGH


October 23, 1983, was a typical Lebanese morning, hot and humid, the air laying heavy on Beirut, when a huge blast cut through the Marine barracks. Many Marines were sleeping peacefully when a suicide bomber leveled the four-story brick building. The car bomb was the largest non-nuclear blast ever detonated. Witnesses said that the driver was smiling as he drove towards his death. The result: 241 American servicemen killed and 80 seriously wounded.  Among the dead was Judith Young's son, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Dennis Young served with 2nd Marine Division 2nd Recon. He was 22. "There was never any doubt that Jeff wanted to be a soldier, ever since he was a little boy playing with his GI Joes,'' said his mother. "When your children go into the service, there is always a danger that something bad will happen. We just didn't expect anything of this magnitude.''

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. Ask any mother who has lived through the terrible moment when she answers the knock at the door, only to see a casualty officer. Without fail, she describes every moment. The memory burns. For Judith Young, those memories are as clear and concise as though the events of 20 years ago happened yesterday. "I measure time by October 23, 1983,'' she said. She describes waking up before dawn the morning of the bombing, feeling as though there was a dark cloud looming over her.

"Something happened to me that morning that I still can't explain. It was as though I could feel death in my home.'' She went immediately to check on her mother who was staying with the Youngs while undergoing cancer treatment. Her mother was safe, but Judith was unable to fall back to sleep. Sunday morning, Judith's brother-in-law called to say that he had been watching the news, and reports were coming in from Beirut that the Marine barracks had been bombed.

She attended church services, but returned to a house filled with worried family and friends. "We spent the entire day watching TV,'' said Judith. "A phone number was given to call for information on family members serving with the USMC in Beirut, but we could never get through,'' she said.

A family member claimed he had seen Jeff among the survivors. Anchorman Stone Phillips brought over Beirut tapes that had not been broadcast. The Youngs gathered around the television, straining for a glimpse of Jeff. Eventually they saw a young man that they were sure was their son, but Jeff's brother John wasn't convinced. The Youngs appeared on Nightline, relieved at the evidence that their son was safe. They were confident that he would be contacting them at any moment. Judith wrote to Jeff, apologizing for what would certainly appear to him to be a media circus.

Less than a week later, two USMC officers gently explained that Jeffrey Young had been killed during the explosion.

The Youngs insisted that it could not be their son because they had seen him during a news broadcast. The confused officer made a series of phone calls trying to locate Jeffrey Young. Once again, the Young home was full with family and friends when the news came that the body of Jeffrey Dennis Young had been found and identified.

Both their community and the Marine Corps rallied around the Young family. The local park that Jeff, his brother, and his father had played in was renamed the Jeff Young Memorial Park. Three Beirut survivors attended the ceremony and Gen. Al Gray was guest speaker.

In the aftermath of the October 23, 1983, tragedy, Judith Young began a support group with Joan Muffler, who had also lost a son in the Beirut bombing. The Beirut Connection began locating and uniting those who lost sons, fathers, and brothers to the bombing. Eventually it merged with the Beirut Veterans Association. It is during this period that an idea began to take shape in Judith's mind.

"I knew for quite some time that I wanted to go [to Beirut],'' Judith Young said. She decided to act on her dream of seeing the country her son died for. "I grabbed my sneakers, got on the train to D.C., and began making the rounds, beginning with the State Department. For the longest time after that day, I thought they [the State Department] had forgotten about me, until one day the phone rang. A woman who worked for the State Department was calling to inform me that Secretary of State Madeline Albright had lifted the travel ban to Lebanon and that I could begin making plans for my trip.''

Judith and Jack received no help from any travel companies or the U.S. or Lebanese State Departments. The flight into Lebanon was long and arduous. "On the last leg, into Beirut, Jack and I were the only people on the plane who spoke English,'' Judith Young said.

Judith Young came to Beirut with two goals in mind. The first was to see the area where the barracks had stood in 1983. The second was to come home with a piece of that building. To her intense disappointment, her first assignment was met with frustration. "The year before we received permission to travel to Beirut, the remains of the barracks were torn down and paved over,'' she said. The site of the U.S. Marine Corp Peacekeping Force was a blacktopped parking lot. "We were met at the airport by a dozen individuals holding a sign with our names and beautiful bouquets of flowers,'' she said. She has no idea how the group found out about their arrival, but soon realized that these people were on a mission, and that mission was the care and well being of Jack and Judith Young. After the disappointment at the barracks, their newfound friends took the Youngs to their hotel.

The next morning they were taken to a Catholic church where the priest read a poem about "Judith's Bouquet,'' a story about a bouquet made up of red, white, and blue silk roses, each with the name of a Marine who had been killed in the 1983 attack. Judith had sent the bouquet with a journalist. After listening to the priest's moving tribute to a mother's love for her son, the Youngs and their hosts boarded a van and drove to a park that serves as a memorial to those who sacrificed their lives during the country's civil war, which began in 1979. This park was filled with trees, each with a number and marker, to commemorate the men who lost their lives on October 23, 1983. A large stone was inscribed with Jeffrey Dennis Young's name and birth date,
and the day of his parents' visit.

"I don't know what they would have done if we hadn't been able to make it that day,'' Judith said. "It was obvious they had done this to honor us and to commemorate the journey we were making in Jeff's memory.'' Several children gathered around the Youngs and, along with their parents, began singing. "It was something I'll never forget,'' she said. Judith Young's only disappointment during the trip was not obtaining a piece of the building her son had called home. The remains of the barracks had been dumped into the Mediterranean Sea after it was demolished.

But she later found a piece of building in the most unlikely of places, at Camp LeJeune, N.C. It was given to her during the Beirut Veterans Reunion at the 15th anniversary of the bombing.

When asked what she came away with from her trip, Judith Young replied with a most unlikely answer: "Friendship'' "It was not what we expected to find, but it found us, nonetheless.'' The Youngs have kept their Beirut friendships alive four years after their trip. One Lebanese friend visited this country and made a special point of seeing the Youngs. The Youngs still stay in close touch with the friends they made during their journey. Jack Young hopes to go back again soon. "Jeff's brother John feels very strongly about going as well,'' said Judith. Many Beirut families also have expressed an interest in going.

Judith Young is currently serving as Second Vice President of the Gold Star Mothers, a job she feels has channeled much of her energy into a positive direction and something she desperately needed after Jeff's death. "My energy has been focused for nearly two decades on the Beirut veterans and their families,''she said. "I feel very protective of these people. The names of their sons, fathers, brothers and husbands are ingrained in my memory forever.''

   

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