The news was like a punch in the Colonel's gut.
Thirty-four years ago, today, a Shiite extremist, trained and equipped by an Iranian-backed terrorist group, drove a truck bomb into the building housing the U.S. Marine Battalion Landing Team HQ at the Beirut Airport. When that deluded young man ignited his bomb, he shortly thereafter discovered that he had been duped -- there were no virgins awaiting him in hell. The resulting explosion imploded the three-story building, killing 241 Marines and sailors as the floors pancaked down on them.
Commanding BLT 1/8 that day was Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach. Nine years previously, then Captain, Gerlach had been the first Marine officer to begin the Colonel's preparation for commissioning as second lieutenant of Marines.
Captain Gerlach was worthy of the idol worship the Colonel and his fellow midshipmen gave him, although the Colonel doubts he realized, nor would have wanted us to hold him up so.
Gerlach, a Pennsylvanian, enlisted in the Marine Corps in the early 60's and had been sent by the Marine Corps to Ole Miss to get a college education and a commission. Graduating in 1966, he went to Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander. Grievously wounded early in his first tour in the jungles, he recovered, volunteered to go back, and was wounded again. In 1974, he was assigned as the Marine Officer Instructor with the NROTC unit at his alma mater.
When the Colonel ambled into Gerlach's office in August of that year, he was welcomed with a handshake, a smile, and an order to "get a haircut."
Captain Gerlach loved us, led us, and taught us. There are a multitude of men and women, even today, who can recite, verbatim, enduring leadership lessons given by him over three decades ago. On the several occasions when the Colonel personally let him down with some bone-headed stunt, or immature misdeed, he didn't rant at him -- he quietly and calmly redirected his errant trajectory, showed him his error and taught the Colonel how to correct others. Humbly, he led us to believe that he was just an average Marine officer -- that the Corps was full of men better than he.
Sadly, he misled us -- not many measured up to him.
The Colonel was a young captain, teaching lieutenants at the Basic School in Quantico, thirty-four years ago. When he heard the news about the bombing of the Battalion HQ in Beirut and the awful death toll, the Colonel was crushed by the thought that Gerlach was probably killed in the blast.
It wasn't for several days that we finally learned that he had survived, although badly injured.
Heroes are hard to kill.