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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Let us to take you back to Beirut. October 23rd, 1983. A bright morning that unexpectedly became the deadliest day for the U.S. military since 1945. Marine Corps Major Robert Jordan spoke with NPR.

(Soundbite of 1983 interview)

Major ROBERT JORDAN (U.S. Marine Corps): About 6:20 this morning a truck filled with high explosives crashed through the southern gate just to the north of the Beirut International Airport. Drove into the lobby of what was formerly the aviation safety building and detonated.

SIMON: Two hundred and twenty U.S. Marines and 21 other U.S. service members died that day, along with 58 French paratroopers. They had been sent to Beirut as peacekeepers. An age of terrorist suicide car and truck bombings had been set off.

Colonel Timothy Geraghty commanded the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut at the time of the attack. He's now retired from the U.S. Marine Corps. Colonel Geraghty joins us from the studios of member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Arizona. Colonel, thanks so much for being with us.

Retired Colonel TIMOTHY GERAGHTY (U.S. Marine Corps): It's my pleasure.

SIMON: Can I ask you to go back to that morning for us?

Ret. Col. GERAGHTY: Yes. I got up at dawn, as usual, and went below to my combat operations center and viewed overnight traffic, and then went outside a while and saw some Marines going about their duty and returned to my office. And it was Sunday, and we were on a modified routine where we let them - Reveille was delayed an hour to 0630. And I was back in my office with my executive officer, who I shared the office with, and we were going over the details of the day's activities when this massive explosion, followed by shock waves, blew out the windows and just turned everything upside down in my office.

And I ran outside and I was immediately blinded, couldn't see because of a dense fog of gray ash that was just in the air. And as I staggered around to the rear of my headquarters, I had thought we had taken a direct hit from a Scud missile. And as I staggered around blindly trying to find out what happened and so on, I was joined by some others, and my logistics officer was right next to me. And as the fog started to lift, he said, my God, the BLT building is gone. And that's the Battalion Landing Team headquarters that was a hundred meters next to my headquarters. And that was the main building where we had to put our people because of the heavy artillery and rocket fire that we had through the summer. And it literally was leveled.

SIMON: Col. Geraghty, I've read an article you have in the October issue of Proceedings Magazine, which is put out by the U.S. Naval Institute. And you think that this famous, notorious truck bombing in Beirut was the beginning of a whole chapter in the operation of terrorism in the world.

Ret. Col. GERAGHTY: I do. I think when you look back with the advantage of history now, is that this started a whole series of suicide truck bombings that just became the favorite weapon of the Islamic extremists. The al-Qaeda picked it up later from Imad Mughniyeh, who was the one that was actually one of the key operatives - trained by Iran and supported by Syria - that was a key operative on both the attack on the Marines and on the French paratroopers on that Sunday morning. But it started a whole series of those that al-Qaeda picked up.

Bin Laden was inspired by the success of the simultaneous coordinated suicide bombings in '83, and they didn't have that expertise before Mughniyeh and Osama bin Laden met in Sudan in 1996. And the first al-Qaeda attack of simultaneous coordinated suicide bombings, truck bombings, occurred in August of 1998, which was the two U.S. embassies in East Africa, in Tanzania and Kenya.

SIMON: I have to ask, even 25 years after the fact, Col. Geraghty. Should the U.S. military have been prepared for a suicide truck bomber - better prepared, at any rate?

Ret. Col. GERAGHTY: I've had some time to think about that, and the original size and magnitude of that device was considered to be stoppable. It wasn't. It was - this is the forensics studies, and studies that were done afterward by FBI and others, that this was the largest non-nuclear explosion on record, delivered by a 19-ton truck. It guaranteed mass casualties. This was briefed to us privately and has recently become public. There was no way that we could have stopped that bomb in that environment. The reason for that was our location.

We were in the middle of an active international airport and really didn't have control of the people and vehicles entering and exiting that. From the first day there, I was uneasy with that location. It was selected for diplomatic and political reasons a year earlier. We were in there over a year at a static location, surrounded by hills with over 600 tubes of artillery that could be brought to bear on us. It was tactically an abominable position.

SIMON: Did the United States make a mistake in withdrawing several months later? Public reaction was bad. There was a lot of feeling in the United States that we had put our young men and women in harm's way for no good purpose.

Ret. Col. GERAGHTY: In my view, no. In 1983, we were at the height of the Cold War. The decision, though, to withdraw them, is that after the bombing it changed the whole complexion. Lebanon was spiraling into - really out of control, and West Beirut had been taken over by the Muslim factions and so on. The purpose that we went in there on a peacekeeping mission had long passed, and we got to a point that to stay there, what are we doing is defending our presence, and the question is, for what?

Now having said that, I think we made a grave mistake after the bombing because it was such pure terrorism. Nothing short of that. And we knew who did it and why they did it, and they were the same crowd that destroyed our embassy April 18th of '83, just a few months earlier. We knew that, and I think we made a grave mistake in not having a retaliation, a retribution to those that did that. And I think we've paid a price for that.

SIMON: Col. Geraghty, how are you doing 25 years after the fact?

Ret. Col. GERAGHTY: I'm doing fine. I'm blessed with good friends, family. But not a day goes by when I don't think about them.

SIMON: Retired U.S. Marine Colonel Timothy Geraghty, who commanded the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit in Beirut, October 23rd, 1983. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ret. Col. GERAGHTY: My pleasure, sir.

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