BEIRUT, Lebanon -- For kids, life is seen through bright eyes that seem to bend reality like twisted reflections in funhouse mirrors. When we stood knee-high, neighborhood dogs looked meaner, schools were built uphill, miles away and Christmas never came. But for those children recently stranded with their families in Beirut, Lebanon – caught up in the middle of a centuries-old grudge – a seemingly straightforward rescue to Mom and Dad becomes a nightmare for kids. Flying aboard a military helicopter, sitting amongst ear-splitting noise and bone-rattling vibration, a kid’s ride can mutate from low-key roller coaster into a full-blown, aerial dental exam performed by their personal boogeyman.
Lucky for them, the Marines serving with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) have learned an age-old trick that doctors have used for years – they keep candy on hand. As they usher parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters onto waiting helicopters as part of an authorized departure from the American Embassy in Beirut, Marines like Cpl. Jason Emerich, an aerial gunner/observer with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced), hand out Jolly Rancher candy to children on board the aircraft, a gesture he hopes will make the ride just a little less frightening to their smallest passengers.
“I can only imagine what it’s like for a civilian, especially for a kid,” explained Emerich, a native of Wernersville, P.A. “We handed out the candy and the kids were all happy and their mothers were shaking our hands; it was definitely rewarding. I finished the day with a pocketful of wrappers.”
“I like working with the small kids,” added Sgt. Jesse B. Reed, a CH-53 crew chief with HMM-365 who was part of the first group of Marines into Beirut. “Most of the time, when they get on (the aircraft) they’re a little scared. But as soon as you get on and let them look around the airplane, they’re all smiles. They’re a lot of fun, and it’s nice to see you’re impacting something somewhere.”
Over the span of a few days, elements of the 24th MEU’s Aviation Combat Element have transported hundreds of people and handed out untold piles of candy in an effort to assist American families in Lebanon avoid the regional hostility that has recently erupted between factions of Hezbollah and Israel. Sparked by mutual, escalating violence, the conflict is currently building in intensity as days of artillery and rocket attacks has left the country in disarray and local American citizens looking for a way home.
One man on his honeymoon who was being flown to safety, Camilo Basto of Estonia, N.Y., said that he’s very happy to be getting out of Lebanon now. After being married in Portugal and taking a tour of Morocco, his trip to Beirut has been cut short by recent attacks. He said he’s thankful for the Marines’ quick reaction to the crisis. Paul Preston of Grand Junction, Colo., echoed Basto’s comments, saying he’s “relieved” to be getting his family out now and is looking forward to “going home.”
Helping to support the ACE in the mass exodus, Cpl. Rick Muston, a 2nd platoon team leader with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Battalion Landing Team of the 24th MEU from Midland, Texas, said he’s enjoying helping people out in a different way.
“All I’ve done before is go to Iraq and Fallujah,” said Muston, whose current role in the operation includes preparing the departing civilians for their flight by strapping them into their flight gear. “It’s good to be able to help people get out at a bad time rather than the usual grunt stuff we do.”
“It’s a great feeling knowing that we could help out people, especially our friends and allies” added 1st Lt. Casey Hager, a pilot with HMM-365 who was responsible for some of the first flights into the embassy area. “Overall, it’s been a great mission and it has been executed flawlessly.”
In addition to the daily flights from the embassy, Marines of the 24th MEU have turned their Landing Craft Air Cushioned, or LCACs, into temporary ferries, helping to quickly move individuals to a safer location. According to Emerich, the MEU’s efforts have produced staggering results, saying that the steel of the USS Trenton – a warship where departing Americans are being housed – was obscured by all the people “waiting and taking pictures” of their adventure.
“It’s great to be able to help out your fellow countrymen, and it felt real good when we dropped them off and they were safe,” said Emerich. “I wish we could get them all out at once, but it’s not possible. We just need to continue to help them in any way we can.”
In the meantime, the 24th MEU will continue the mission of aiding any American who requests assistance in departing to safety. And, because of the efforts of a few good Marines, the ride out may not be as scary for kids flying “Marine Airline” for the first time. With pockets full of candy, the Marines will continue trying to turn a terrifying ride into a little piece of Christmas – one kid at a time.