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Public Joy, Private Sorrow: a Tragic Year for the Military Ends in Bittersweet Homecomings

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The shivering young girl with long blond hair urgently yanked at her mother’s coat sleeve as a cluster of helmeted Marines with M-16s slung over their shoulders filed out of the Trailways bus. “Mom, is that him? Is it, Mom? Mom?” Like hundreds of other relatives who braved the raw temperature and slicing winds with their cameras and little American flags, the mother and daughter were barricaded behind a wall of stiff Marines, the weary returnees’ only protection from a stampede of overeager families. “Yes,” the mother nodded, “that’s him.” The girl jumped up frantically. “Daddy,” she squealed, both arms in the air. “Daaaaaaaaaa-deeeeeee.”

There have been other homecomings since the U.S. Marines became peacekeepers in Lebanon 16 months ago, but none quite like the one at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. on Pearl Harbor Day, when the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit came home. The 24th MAU was in Beirut when terrorists blew up Marine headquarters, killing 241 men—220 of them Marines. That Bloody Sunday was bloodier for the U.S. military than any day since Vietnam in 1968. In the week following the blast 18 more servicemen died in Grenada. For the Marines in particular, 1983 was a year of tragedy and vindication, and on Pearl Harbor Day Camp Lejeune was a swirl of emotions, the joys of reunion tempered by freshly evoked memories of loss.

Everything possible was done to give the Marines a glorious reception. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce handed out 30,000 yellow ribbons, and nearly every marquee in town sported signs reading, “Welcome Home 24th MAU.” The city fathers announced plans for a new Marine monument on the outskirts of town and for pear trees to be planted along Lejeune Boulevard to honor the dead. As successive busloads of troops arrived to a rousing welcome from four marching bands, the cheers of family (“There he is! There he is!”) swelled above the drone of official valedictories. “My baby, my baby,” screamed one mother, rushing into the arms of a man the size of Mr. T. “You know,” said Cheryl Windsor, the wife of a returning Marine pilot, “my husband served two years in Vietnam and when he came home people spit on him. This is so refreshing.”

And yet the countercurrent of sorrow was strong. It was felt the night before aboard the five transport ships where the Marines spent their last night away from home reading, playing cards, watching a movie (An Officer and a Gentleman). “It was touchy,” remembered Lance Cpl. Diedrich Homan. “Everybody was in his own little world.” So many of the unit had come home earlier, not to pomp but in a mass cargo of flag-draped coffins. “In some ways it feels like I never left,” said one teary-eyed Marine at the festivities in Jacksonville. “In other ways it feels like I’ve been gone a lifetime.”

This is a story about some of the reunions that happened at Camp Lejeune, and some that didn’t.

Debrah Hendrickson, 30, crawled into bed at 2 a.m. and set the alarm for 4 a.m., but by 3 a.m. on the day her husband John was scheduled to arrive, nervous energy had propelled her into the kitchen, where she baked him a chocolate cake, his favorite. She is one of the lucky wives. “I met one lady at Lejeune that day and asked about her husband,” Debrah recalled. “She said, ‘He’s not coming back.’ I didn’t know what to say.”

By 8:45 a.m. Debrah’s hair was in curlers, she had hung a welcome-home sign on the front of her house and had gotten her antsy sons, John III, 6, and Tyson, 3½, into new Sunday-best outfits. Earlier in the week she had given herself a permanent and bought at a sale a fetching gray suit to show off her figure, 13 pounds lighter since John had left. “I went all out because I know he takes pride in how I look,” she said. Her freezer had long since been stocked with dishes he loves—chili, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs—and, in an ultimate show of true love, she had cleaned the oven. “You know it’s a big occasion when I do that,” she said, laughing.

His absence had been the longest of their seven-year marriage. (At 30, John, a staff sergeant, has been a Marine since 1972.) She passed the time with her children, friends, books, Tupperware parties and answering his 81 letters. During the waiting she became reflective about her husband, more appreciative of him, “even the little pinches when he walked past me.” The bombing left an indelible imprint on her. “I could have lost him and that scared me more than anything. Hell couldn’t have kept me away if he had been wounded.”

The Hendricksons left for the reunion from their house on the base around 10:30 a.m., but it was not until 5:30 p.m. that the bus carrying her husband arrived. Then she spotted him, 6’4″ and 30 pounds less of him. Crying, she flew into his arms, saying, “I love you,” as their sons grabbed their father’s knees. John unlocked her embrace and joked, “Hey, I’m all in one piece.” “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m taking inventory when we get home.” As the family disappeared into the night, John stopped, threw back his head and inhaled deeply. “Aaaaaah,” he said. “American air!”

Dennis and Beverly Schultz watched the happy Lejeune homecoming on television in their house trailer in the cold north woods of Keeseville, N.Y., near the Canadian border. But they did not celebrate. Their son—Lance Cpl. Scott L. Schultz, 19, a victim of the Bloody Sunday bombing—had already come home. Now he lay beneath ground covered by an early winter snow, and the TV news only brought back the sorrow that had haunted the Schultz family for six weeks.

“He was supposed to call tonight,” said Beverly, 39, a pastry cook at a nearby inn. “That hurts.”

“We’re always thinking about him, but it’s worse today,” said Dennis, also 39, a disabled laborer.

Dennis opened his wallet and carefully removed a piece of folded yellow paper—a homemade Fathers’ Day card, with an original poem, that Scott had sent from Beirut. Beverly darted into another room and returned with a gold cross, adorned with a diamond and still mounted in the box it was purchased in. “You don’t see many sons at 18 who will send their mother a necklace that cost almost $300,” she said. “He sent it for Christmas last year because he wasn’t home.”

Scott also sent money—$400 a month—to supplement the family budget. Some of it went to buy a bicycle that enables Scott’s older brother Dennis, 20, to commute to his job as a dishwasher in a local restaurant. Some bought school clothes for brother, Dale, 13. Some purchased a tank of kerosene for the trailer. The Schultzes were reluctant to use Scott’s money for household items, but he insisted. “You couldn’t ask for a better son,” said Beverly, wringing her hands on the kitchen tabletop. “He was the best.”

During his high school years, however, there was one source of conflict between Scott and his parents. He wanted to join the Marines right after graduation. They wanted him to stay at home, at least for a year. Scott repeatedly begged his parents to sign the papers that would enable him to join the Marines before he reached the legal age of 18. They repeatedly refused.

Finally Dennis gave in to his son’s pleas. In July 1982, just a month after his graduation, Scott left Keeseville for Camp Lejeune. He loved it, and he reveled in the rigors of boot camp. In April 1983 he returned home on a furlough—sporting a multicolored cobra tattoo on his right biceps—and informed his family that he was going to Beirut in May. The full impact of his words didn’t really hit them. “We knew it was a bad spot,” said Beverly, “but not as bad as it turned out.”

While Scott was in Beirut, his parents wrote him every day. He replied regularly, closing his letters with the phrase “Take care and God bless.” He allowed himself some sentimentality: “I love you all. You give me the power to go on day after day. I am very proud to have you as my family.” And he tried to reassure them about the fighting: “You must be getting one hell of a story on the news back home. Well, don’t worry about what’s going on here. It’s not as bad as it sounds.”

Around the middle of October, while his platoon was stationed in sandbag-lined bunkers on the southern end of the Beirut airport, Scott was sent to the “BLT building,” Marine headquarters, for a rotation in the mess hall. He was there on Bloody Sunday.

Beverly Schultz was so nervous after hearing about the bombing that she burned her hand on the oven that morning and her boss sent her home. For the next three days Dennis dialed and redialed the special Marine information number but all he ever heard was the frustrating buzz of a busy signal. Then, on Wednesday, they saw three somber Marines marching toward their door.

The news was particularly devastating for Scott’s brothers. “The oldest I one—he’s got a speech defect and he’s a little handicapped—he said, ‘I don’t know why it couldn’t have been me,’ ” Dennis recalled. “And the little one went into his room and didn’t come out for about two days.”

Sitting around their kitchen table on the night of the Camp Lejeune homecoming, the Schultzes wondered about the wisdom of the Marines’ mission in Beirut.

“How many guys are they gonna lose?” Beverly wondered.

“In the last letter he wrote, the day before the bombing, he said he was getting sick of seeing his buddies go by on stretchers,” Dennis said.

Two years after they signed the papers, the Schultzes were still haunted by their decision to allow Scott to join the Marines. “I didn’t want him to go,” Beverly said. “I didn’t want to sign the papers,” Dennis said, his fingers fidgeting nervously with his son’s letters, arranging them into piles, then rearranging them. “But he saw the recruiter in Plattsburgh and he came out to the car, and he said, ‘Please, Dad, please.’ I said, ‘No, Scott, I don’t want to.’ And he said, ‘Please, please.’ And I said, ‘Well, okay, if that’s what you want.’ ”

Dennis Schultz stood up, his eyes brimming with tears, and paced into the living room.

“Scott said this was gonna be the best Christmas we ever had,” said Beverly. “Instead, it’s gonna be the worst.”

After stray artillery rounds ricocheted off the BLT building hours before the attack, Cpl. William Gaines Jr. and his buddy Sgt. Armando Ybarra decided to sleep on the floor as a safety precaution. After the explosion Ybarra “wound up way below the basement,” he said at Camp Lejeune. An alert rescuer spotted him underneath a concrete slab. Gaines, who had slept next to him, wound up dead. Hours later Ybarra shrugged off his doctors’ whispers about possibly amputating his right leg. “I said, ‘I don’t care. I’m just glad to be alive.’ ”

One of the first men pulled from the twisted wreckage, Ybarra, 29, was featured on the covers of TIME and Newsweek. His wife, Angela, 23, saw the picture after he called her to let her know he was alright. “If I had seen that picture first,” she said, “I would have passed out.”

Ybarra, who had received get-well wishes from around the country, deflected suggestions he was a hero. “I was asleep,” said the Austin, Texas native and 10-year veteran of the Marines. “Maybe if I had been awake and tried to stop it, we could say I was a hero.”

He returned to Lejeune on Nov. 2. He suffered no broken bones, but his right foot and part of his right leg are numb; if his recovery goes well, he will be able to walk unaided in a year. Once at home in Jacksonville, he saw for the first time his youngest daughter, Wendy, 6 months, who was born two weeks after he left for Lebanon. (Daughter Allyson is 2.)

The emotional wounds will also take time to heal. While hospitalized he was visited by Gaines’ wife and mother. The women probed for answers: What had Gaines done the night of the blast? Was he asleep when it happened? Had he said anything about them? In the end Gaines’ wife had said that perhaps her husband’s death was simply “God’s will.” Ybarra must struggle with survivor’s guilt. “When I was in the hospital, I said, ‘Why me? Why couldn’t all three of us have lived? Or died?’ ” (A third Marine buddy, Cpl. Henry Town-send, asleep on the other side of Gaines, survived as well.)

Ybarra remembered a discussion group held among the wounded. “A counselor asked, ‘Do you cry?’ Nobody wanted to say anything. Finally, I said, ‘Hell, yeah, I do. When I sit back and realize how many friends I lost.’ ”

Sgt. Richard Blankenship told his wife Debbie, 23, that when he got home he wanted a fire going in their new mobile home and the champagne chilled. She had long since purchased his Christmas presents—a set of weights, a hunting knife—and in an hour-long call to Beirut on Richard’s birthday (the bill was $127), the two talked about gifts for their son, Richard, 2 ½. When Debbie got lonely, she would glance at the family picture—their first, taken one week before he left.

Four days after the bombing Debbie was told that Richard was missing in action. Four days later—on Halloween—came the final word. “I was in the bedroom and heard car doors slam,” she said. From her window, she watched the grim-faced Marine chaplain and a casualty officer head toward her door. “I just said, ‘They’re here.’ ” When he died, Richard was “26 years, one month and six days old.”

Against the advice of friends, Debbie and her son turned out for the homecoming at Camp Lejeune. “I feel like the Marines are my family,” she said. She especially wanted to greet her husband’s best friend, Lance Cpl. Charles Anthony Norfleet, hoping he could help her make sense of her loss. “I felt like Tony had to talk to me, tell me some things,” she said. By day’s end she was “numb and depressed” but glad she had come. “It was good seeing Tony,” she said.

Reminders of her husband’s fate are all about her. “They sent over his belongings and his civilian clothes were in there,” she said. “He had a Members Only jacket and a polo shirt he had gotten for Christmas. I kept those. Out of everything else, those hurt me the most. That’s what he had on in the family picture.”

Both grew up in nearby Fayetteville, N.C. Richard, a Marine since 1975, planned to reenlist. But his letters had grown uncharacteristically sentimental—and ominous. He once wrote her that he wanted Kenny Rogers’ Love the World Away played at his funeral, and that he “didn’t expect to live to see 26.” “I just feel like he knew,” Debbie said. “One time I wrote him and said, ‘Sometimes I’m afraid that you’re not coming home.’ He said, ‘I know how you feel. I feel the same way. But I just try to shake it off.’ ”

Weeks after his funeral she received a “poetic” letter saying how happy he was after five years of marriage. His last letter, said Debbie through an embarrassed blush, “was so hot it nearly burnt my fingers off.”

She was not bitter. “He loved the Marines,” she said. “He didn’t and I don’t understand the killing. Richard said he didn’t know why he was there, but that he was a Marine and he had to do what they told him to.”

She will receive financial benefits from the Marines (including a $35,000 insurance payment) and from the Marine Beirut Relief Fund organized by Camp Lejeune wives. She plans to stay in Jacksonville (“I feel closer to him here”) and may return to school. She spent most of Thanksgiving Day alone at her husband’s grave, but she and her son will join her parents in Fayetteville for Christmas.

Debbie intends to keep her husband’s memory alive for their son, with scrapbooks of press clippings, mounted ribbons and visits to the cemetery. “Everybody said not to take him to the grave, that he wouldn’t understand,” said Debbie. “But I took him out there and told him that’s where his daddy is. I showed him the flowers and the plaque. When we left, he said, ‘I love you, Daddy. Bye-bye.’ ”