BEIRUT, Lebanon -- To American civilians, eating a meal ready-to-eat, or MRE, can be an intimidating prospect. It’s handed to them cased in a non-descript brown sleeve, not unlike certain types of discreet mail. Once opened, its contents are filled with individual packages, chemical heaters and official-sounding foods like “fortified applesauce.” With a family in tow, a war on their heels and military transit to look forward to, nearly 14,000 Americans faced the additional daunting task of MRE dining before their authorized departure from Beirut, Lebanon, earlier this month.
Making that task just a little easier were Marines like Cpl. Justin Muir, a combat engineer with Marine Expeditionary Unit Service Support Group 24 and a native of Canastota, N.Y. To thousands of people, and especially the kids he helped, he’ll forever be known as “Chef Muir” because of his professionalism in dealing with crowds unaccustomed to eating military-style cuisine, an experience he says “sticks out because it was fun.”
“They started calling me ‘Chef Muir’ because of the classes I was teaching on eating the MREs. I did my best trying to make a difference,” explained the gregarious Muir, who was one of 36 24th MEU (Special Operations Capable) Marines operating the evacuation control center located at the port facility in Beirut, near the American embassy. “I know I got them out of harm’s way and that’s about it. I’m just doing my job.”
For nearly two weeks, Marines like Muir began “just doing their job” before sunrise and worked constantly to ensure the rapid processing and departure of everyone scrambling to escape the coming storm. According to 1st Lt. Jeffrey Bayse, the 24th MEU disbursing officer and ECC officer-in-charge, the operation could not have gone better.
“These Marines came from 20 different (military occupational specialties), and this wasn’t their job,” said Bayse, a Roanoke, Va., native. “They performed the second largest evacuation of Americans in history with as much success as you can have. All in all, this is the most impressed I’ve been with Marines in my 14 years of service.”
Bayse said that the skill of the Marines became evident when they began to process twice as many people as their procedures call for – a difference of 100 additional people an hour. Stretched across a 10-day period, more than 1,000 more people were able to escape to safety earlier than planned. He said that the Marines’ dedication to the mission was never more apparent than when they learned they would be returning to the USS Iwo Jima.
“People did not want to leave because they felt responsible. They wanted to make sure that they completed the mission,” added Bayse. “This was an amazing group of Marines. They were given the opportunity to use their initiative to do what they were asked to do and more.”
The impact the small group of Marines had on the departing civilians is difficult to measure but easy to find. For the six-foot, two-inch Muir, a larger-than-life figure for kids, he finds rewards in the e-mails he’s received from some of the children he helped through a tough day in Beirut.
“Most of the memories I have are about the kids being cool about everything. They’re so innocent,” said Muir, whose own five-month-old daughter, Luciann, and wife, Kristen, are back home waiting for his return. Muir attributes his ease with kids to his work with disabled kids back home – an activity he hopes to pursue after his Marine Corps career comes to a close. “Helping kids makes me feel like a million bucks.”
With the Americans they assisted now safe from the hostilities in Lebanon, the Marines who worked everyday to ensure they made it home can turn their attention to possible follow-on missions. Staff Sgt. Charles Addison, MSSG-24 administration chief and a native of Winnsboro, La., said that his Marines are always in the mood for helping out and summed up the feelings of the 36 leathernecks who made the mission a success by saying, “I’m ready to do it again.”
The 24th MEU is composed of its command element; Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment; Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced); and MSSG-24.