HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
* Editor's note: This story has been revised since its original publication.
The sun rose slowly above the city of Beirut –sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and the rugged Lebanese mountain ranges. A light breeze drifted over the city, cooling it to a pleasant 65 degrees.
Marines from the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines Battalion Landing Team were relaxing -- sleeping in their racks, or writing letters home.
No one could have prepared for the terror that was about to strike.
At 6:22 a.m. a truck loaded with 12,000 pounds of explosives barraged the front of the Marine Headquarters barracks, turning the four-story building to rubble.
The FBI called it the largest non-nuclear bomb in history.
Six thousand miles away, then-1st Lt. David Budak woke up to prepare for formation.
As part of a battalion on air-alert status, Budak and his Marines of Camp LeJeune, N.C. were always prepared to deploy.
That morning, Budak was getting ready when he received a phone call from his father urging him to flip on the news. That’s when Budak saw the obliterated building -- levels already collapsed, and smoke bellowing from the 39-by 29-foot wide crater.
He returned from Beirut a few months before, where he served as a platoon commander in support of peacekeeping operations.
“I grabbed my stuff, and I knew I wasn’t coming home at that point,” said Budak. “Thirty-six hours after the blast, we landed at Beirut International.”
Budak and his Marines immediately joined the recovery efforts. This was a job well-understood, as they had responded to the U.S. Embassy bombing only six months prior.
“On the 18th of April in 1983 was when the U.S. embassy was bombed,” said Budak, now the 49th Civil Engineer Squadron deputy base civil engineer. “When the embassy blew, I was dispatched from the battalion landing team to be part of the initial response force. When we arrived, there was quite a bit of chaos. The bomber had come to the front of the building and blew it up, causing levels to collapse and over 50 people to be killed.”
However, on that deployment, the posture was different.
The people of Beirut longed for stability and embraced the Marines with open arms while condemning the terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy.
“When we went ashore, initially, our role was to help bring stability back to the region,” said Budak. “That area had been in civil war for seven years prior. I can tell you, the people were thrilled to attempt to get back to some sort of normality.”
During those first few months, Budak commanded daily patrols throughout the city and along the perimeter of the airfield.
Six months later, when he returned in response to the barracks bombing, the posture had done a complete 180-degree turn.
“There was a significant change in the environment from when we left Beirut,” said Budak. “There was a lot of hope, and many people were pleased that we were there. But, that imposed on some of the guys there – some we are still fighting.”
For one week after the attack, Budak and his Marines were involved in recovery efforts, and provided security around the perimeter of the headquarters building.
Two hundred forty-one members were killed that day in the most deadly bombing on U.S. forces in over 30 years. However, for Budak, recovering bodies was not the most difficult part of that mission.
“You pick up a boot with a foot in it, and that’s one thing,” said the 30-year Marine veteran. “There were obvious bodies and portions of bodies that had to be recovered. That wasn’t the hardest part. Blown out of the building and laying on the ground were pictures from home. You knew, when you were picking up those things, how personal it was to those people you were looking at in the pictures. It still brings a lot of emotion, to this day. But, Marines just have to man-up, do their mission and take care of business.”