Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
October is always a reflective month for me, and it has been since October 23, 1983. I am compelled to write about that day because so many Americans take for granted the simple freedom of allowing children as well as adults to play and enjoy recreation in safety.
On that day in 1983, 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers were killed in Beirut, Lebanon, when a terrorist bomber drove a cargo truck filled with military-grade explosives wrapped around gas cylinders into the military barracks and detonated them.
Besides killing himself and the U.S. servicemen, the driver’s actions injured hundreds more. At the same time, 89 French paratroopers were killed, and dozens more wounded a few miles away in a similar attack.
The U.S. was in Beirut as part of a multinational peacekeeping force, along with French, British, and Italian troops. We had been brought in at the Lebanese government’s request to stabilize a completely de-stabilized region and give peace a chance after the president was assassinated.
Why we were there and whether it was a politically or militarily sound decision is not the subject of this missive. The subject here is the children who grow up in such a climate of war, death, and destruction. With more than a dozen warring factions, from organized national military forces to armed community gangs, life in Beirut was (and still is) anything but peaceful.
Children Of War
I was a Marine staff sergeant in Beirut at the time; in fact, had I not stopped for a cup of coffee that morning, I would have been in the barracks and undoubtedly would have been a casualty, but that’s another story.
As a Marine, it was the first time I had been in a combat zone and had closely observed the children of war.
The region now known as Lebanon has been a combat zone for a long, long time. Beirut, as the capital and main seaport, has always been at the center of conflict. This and other strategic features have made it a prize for invading armies for more than 2,000 years.
Most children in this devastated land have grown up for generations knowing only war.
Instead of coaching soccer or baseball, fathers have to teach their children how to handle weapons and survive. Instead of a Saturday morning cacophony of referees’ whistles and cheering parents, children often wake up to gunfire and artillery.
I observed young children–as young as 10 or 12 years old–standing on street corners with AK-47s or RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), locked and loaded with their fingers on the trigger.
Small hands that should have been wrapped around a football were gripping the stock of an assault rifle. Small eyes that should have been squinting at a pop fly in the sun were glaring at me with malice.
On foot patrols, some children would react normally to the offer by Marines of chocolate or gum. The children would smile, wave, and give the universal thumbs-up sign. It was quite a contrast to the gun-wielding kids, and drove home the realization that, world-wide, if you give kids a chance to be kids, they’ll take it.
They had much rather hold a Hershey bar than a weapon.
Let Kids Be Kids
What does this have to do with parks and recreation? Well, everything, I think. Parks and recreation professionals, wherever they are, have a unique opportunity to provide the amenities that allow kids to be kids.
We should be thankful for that, because it isn’t the case in some parts of the world. When you look at your job from that perspective, it may give it a whole new meaning.
The other reason I write this is because I and hundreds of other servicemen who served in Beirut formed a group (Beirut Veterans of America), and pledged to never let America or the world forget our 241 brothers who died in Beirut on that day, nor the other 30 who were killed during U.S. involvement in that area from 1982 to 1984, nor the hundreds of others who were wounded.
Our group adopted the motto, “The first duty is to remember.” This October 23, like every one since 1984, hundreds of servicemen and their families will gather at the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, N.C., to remember. The name of each deceased serviceman will be read aloud by a veteran or family member, so that he will once again live for a brief moment.
Knowing what I know now about what can be achieved through the work of parks and recreation professionals, I will also make it a point to remember the children of Beirut. They are also victims who have had their childhood stolen by adults who cannot work out their differences in civilized ways, but must revert to violence and war.
Be thankful today that you are in a society where children are free to live.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine, is a regular contributor to PRB and lives in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (678) 350-8642 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.