If you pass by the Tucson Electric Power building in downtown Tucson, you may notice a special addition. This year, from Oct. 23 through Veterans Day, the POW MIA flag will fly just below the American flag, to honor those lost in a deadly terrorist attack in Beirut 40 years ago.
On the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, a truck packed with approximately 12,000 pounds of explosives crashed through the front gates of the United States Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. The explosion killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers. It was the largest loss of life in a single day for the Marine Corps since the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.
Moments later, a second suicide bomber drove into the barracks of a French paratrooper detachment in West Beirut. The explosion killed 58 French soldiers.
During the bombing, Jim Smith, Maintenance Engineer for TEP’s facilities management company, was serving aboard the USS Ponce and taking part in amphibious exercises with NATO forces in Norway north of the arctic circle in the North Atlantic. He had joined the Navy in 1980.
The Ponce, along with the USS Nassau and USS Saginaw, were dispatched to Lebanon. The three-ship amphibious task force was then stationed off the coast of Lebanon with U.S. Marines units from Camp LeJeune. They remained on station until late 1984.
As the years have gone by, Jim thinks about his brothers in arms more and more often. It’s what prompted him to suggest the addition of the POW MIA flag to the TEP building this year to honor their memory and as a tribute to veterans and service members.
“I have been able to do so much in 40 years,” he said. “I was able to get married and raise three kids. Those guys didn’t get that opportunity.”
Now those blessings are coming full circle. His youngest daughter, Alexandra, joined the Marines after graduating high school. She was assigned to the 8th Communications Battalion, which was also part of the multinational peace keeping force in Beirut.
During his first trip to visit Alexandra at to Camp LeJeune, she took him to see the Beirut memorial in Jacksonville, North Carolina. It’s an experience that will stick with him forever. “I’ll always remember how the emotions of reading ‘They came in peace’ etched in the memorial wall, hit me,” he said.
In the end, he said, people just don’t want to be forgotten. “They made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “They took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, just like I did.”
Jim said he is thankful that TEP approved his request to fly the flag.
When he thinks about the lives lost those four decades ago, he can’t help but recall a quote from Gen. George Patton. “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”