“We Came in Peace”Posted on September 10, 2022
Beirut Marines Find a Voice in Forthcoming Documentary Film
By Sara W. Bock
When Greg Wah shops for Marine Corps-related souvenirs or mementos, he never seems to have any trouble finding items specific to those who served in World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. But conspicuously absent from the typical lineup of offerings, he says, is a part of the Corps’ history that many seem to have forgotten, but he can’t go a day without remembering: Beirut, Lebanon.
The veteran Marine recalls having just celebrated his 18th birthday—“I was still wet behind the ears,” he quips—when the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU), with Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment as its landing force, was ordered to replace the 22nd MAU in war-torn Lebanon after the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. As the year went on, complex and long-festering hostilities among warring factions and militias led to an influx of small arms, rocket and mortar fire specifically targeting the Marines, who as members of a multinational peacekeeping force were not permitted to adequately defend themselves. America may not have officially been at war, but the reality on the ground told a vastly different story. According to a 2003 article in DAV Magazine, by Oct. 22, the eve of one of the most tragic events in Marine Corps history, seven Marines had already been killed and 64 wounded by enemy fire.
Wah, who says that only in recent years has he begun to process the trauma he experienced in Beirut, is not alone in his sentiments when he expresses frustration about the manner in which the entire mission was handled. In his words, “the whole thing has been swept under the rug.”
Still in production, “We Came in Peace” is expected to premiere next year on the 40th anniversary of the Oct. 23, 1983, suicide bombing that decimated the four-story reinforced concrete BLT 1/8 headquarters building in Beirut and killed 241 Americans—220 of them U.S. Marines. The date would go down in history as the Corps’ deadliest since the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.
The film is a labor of love for Ivey, as well as for Elisa Camara, one of its producers, who at just 17 years old received the news that her beloved older brother, Sergeant Mecot Camara, USMC, was among those killed in the devastating blast. After she wrote the 2013 book, “American Brother,” in which she told the heartfelt story of Mecot’s upbringing in rural West Virginia, his service in the Marine Corps, and his tragic death, Camara began attending the annual Beirut Memorial Observance Ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., held each October, and became closely acquainted with many of the Marines who had served alongside him. There, she found herself part of a “family” bonded by tragedy.
“They were just so embracing of my heartache, and they have their own heartache too,” Camara said with emotion in her voice. “They said, ‘You lost your brother, but you gained a platoon of brothers who will always be there for you.’ ” It came as no surprise, then, that when Dan Brown, who served in Beirut, approached Camara after a 2019 Memorial Day gathering of Beirut Marines and family members in Washington, D.C., and asked for help, she was determined not to let him down. His request was straightforward: “Can you help us tell our story, so we’re not forgotten?”
That conversation was the impetus for “We Came in Peace,” but it certainly didn’t happen overnight. Camara had previously thought about trying to get a documentary made about the Beirut Marines, but she had no idea where to begin. And then there was the issue of funding. When she’d inquired with a Los Angeles-based producer, the cost—$500,000 up front—was insurmountable. As fate would have it, a mutual friend connected Camara with Ivey, who also is a West Virginia native and was already familiar with Mecot’s story. A member of the Director’s Guild of America and former commentator on National Public Radio’s long running “All Things Considered,” Ivey had recently made a commitment to creating what he refers to as “work that matters,” when the story of the Beirut Marines fell into his lap.
“I feel like the angels are behind this one, and it all starts with Elisa and her brother,” said Ivey, adding that he considers it an honor and a privilege to leverage his experience as a storyteller to make the film the Beirut Marines and their families deserve.
Lacking the funding to get the project started, Camara first set out to create a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the American Brother Foundation, that both honors Mecot Camara’s life and funds the production of the film. Up to this point, “We Came in Peace” has been made possible solely through private donations. Ivey has avoided soliciting completion money from networks, who generally exert a heavy influence over the production process, because he’s determined to keep his promise to let the Marines tell the story themselves. Instead, as donations have trickled in, Ivey has traveled around the country to conduct on-camera interviews, the first of which took place in February 2021. As of late July, he’s collected the stories of 45 different individuals, including General Alfred M. Gray, USMC (Ret), who served as the commanding general of 2nd Marine Division at the time of the Beirut bombing and later as the 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps; retired Colonel Timothy J. Geraghty, who commanded the 24th MAU and the U.S. Multinational Peacekeeping Force; and Lieutenant Colonel Larry Gerlach, the commanding officer of BLT 1/8 who survived the bombing of the headquarters.
For Greg Wah, sharing his story on camera brought back a barrage of memories he had long suppressed.
“I think this documentary is going to bring a lot of healing because a lot of the Marines have done the same thing that I have done,” said Wah, who was shot in the leg on his very last day in Beirut, Nov. 7, 1983, just two weeks after the bombing. “When I got out of the Corps, I didn’t talk to anybody about my experience, not even with my own family […] It was bottled—put in a bottle never to be opened.”
Retired Gunnery Sergeant Danny Joy, a friend of Mecot Camara’s who served with Weapons Company, 1/8, is thankful that he and his fellow Beirut veterans finally have been given an opportunity to tell their story. “No one has ever asked us,” he said with a tinge of sadness in his voice. But while he’s appreciative, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy topic for him to talk about, especially around the anniversary of the bombing each year.
“Every year it comes around and it’s like picking a scab off this wound, and now I’m opening the wound up again. It’s emotional, and really, it’s tough,” said Joy, who describes the survivor’s guilt he and others who made it home continue to struggle with decades later. “There’s certain things you saw that you can’t ever unsee.”
The film, which has received the endorsement of the fraternal organization Beirut Veterans of America, is devoid of the narration and reenactments that are common within the documentary genre. With neither scripted voiceovers nor actors, both Camara and Ivey insist that the film lives up to its claim of telling the “boots-on-the-ground truth” as told by those who were there.
“We’re not doing some revisionist piece,” Ivey said emphatically.
Camara considers those who have participated by sharing their stories to be collaborators in the project, and notes that the major contributors to the funding of the film thus far have been Beirut veterans themselves.
“It’s deeply personal to everyone involved, […] and it’s not an easy story to share,” said Camara. “We want to share it for history, but we also want to share it to honor the ones that didn’t come home, and the ones that live with it every day.”
For Camara, a highlight of the entire experience came when she had the opportunity to accompany Ivey to the home of Gen Gray to film his on-camera interview.
“He [Gen Gray] was wonderful, and the last thing I said before we went out was, ‘I can assure you that this will be done with grace and dignity or we will not do it at all, Sir. I can promise you that,’ ” she recounted. “And he looked at me and he pointed his finger at me and said, ‘I am holding you to that, young lady!’ ”
It’s a commitment she takes seriously. So much so, that last October, in concurrence with the annual observance ceremony in Camp Lejeune, they held a private screening of the six-minute trailer and asked for feedback and suggestions from the Marines and Gold Star family members in attendance.
The trailer, which can be viewed on the documentary’s website, is a high-quality sample of the hours of interviews Ivey has conducted to date, featuring honest, raw and emotional accounts that invite the viewer to think critically about an important and often-overlooked moment in America’s history.
“It’s time, especially with what’s going on in the world right now,” Camara said. It’s her hope that future generations of Americans will not only know what happened in Beirut, but also will learn valuable lessons that may help prevent history from repeating itself.
There are still Beirut Marines left to interview for the film, and Ivey also aims to secure funding that will allow him to interview diplomats, journalists, and other international peacekeepers—namely, Italians and French—who also supported the multinational effort. The film also will detail the concurrent suicide bombing of the French Paratrooper Detachment in Beirut on Oct. 23, which killed 58 French servicemembers. He hopes that adding additional perspectives will “broaden the circle” and provide an even greater context for viewers to consider.
For retired Marine Gunnery Sergeant Don Inns, a Beirut veteran who served with Mecot Camara in “Charlie” Co, BLT 1/8, the recent loss of three members of his old platoon in a span of only five weeks served as a reminder of the importance of telling this story sooner rather than later.
“Sadly, they took their stories to the grave nearly four decades after Beirut,” said Inns. “This documentary is our last best hope of illuminating the cause and cost of our country’s entanglement in Lebanon […] Supporting it is the least we can do in remembrance of those that sacrificed the most. It is also the best investment we can make for future generations of Marines, as what’s past is prologue.”
According to Camara, the film will be pitched to Netflix and other streaming platforms, and premieres are anticipated to take place in October 2023 both at Camp Lejeune and in West Virginia.
It’s Ivey’s hope that their efforts will help shed light on what really happened in Beirut nearly 40 years ago.
“Maybe we can do something to make it right, learn the lessons, recognize the people that were there, recognize that it was an undeclared war, and it can effect positive change,” Ivey said. But most of all, he emphasizes, he’s doing it for those who served and sacrificed there. “They live with this every single day,” he added.