Photo Information

Pvt. William Smith, a recruit with Bravo Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, stands with Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Joint Chief of Staff Sgt. Maj. Troy Black, Marine veterans John Weant, and Dan Kovach on Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., May 31, 2024. Smith’s grandfather was killed in action during the Beirut bombing in Oct. 1983 and Weant and Kovach were two Marines he served with. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Cpl. Dakota Dodd)

Photo by Cpl. Dakota Dodd

Filling the Gap

12 Jun 2024 | Lance Cpl. William Horsley Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island

On Oct. 23, 1983, Cpl. Dan Kovach was manning Checkpoint 8, a small outpost near the bullet ridden American University Library building in Beirut, when he heard a loud explosion.

Kovach, an infantryman with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, saw two large mushroom clouds in the sky coming from the direction of the Battalion Landing Team barracks nearly a mile away.

The sound of mortars and small arms firefights had become a daily occurrence in Lebanon, but Kovach knew this was different. For the next few minutes, there was confusion over the radio as Marines on post attempted to reach the headquarters for 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment.

Finally, a single Marine’s voice came across the airwaves with a sorrowful message, “The BLT is gone. The BLT is gone.”

Kovach had just been relieved from his post when the explosions occurred and had walked inside into the Library when he discovered that the barracks had been destroyed. The barracks housed the supporting elements for the battalion and without it, relief was sparse and news spread slowly to his position.

"I walked up the flight of stairs and sat down next to him, he looked up at me and said ‘Danny, my brother is gone'" Cpl. Dan Kovach, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment

After Kovach heard the transmission about the BLT, he saw a friend, Donnie Giblin, who had a brother assigned with the BLT headquarters, sitting alone in a dark stairwell.

“I walked up the flight of stairs and sat down next to him, he looked up at me and said ‘Danny, my brother is gone,’” said Kovach. “I told him, ‘you don’t know that,’ and he told me, ‘he’s gone. I can feel it.'

That moment was when Kovach began to understand the severity of the situation. He did not see the remains of the building until Nov. 8, 16 days after the explosion, when relief for his unit arrived for them to redeploy back to Camp Lejeune.

After the barracks bombing, Kovach stood guard on a bridge adjacent to the library building at Checkpoint 8 and Checkpoint 9 with Marines and Lebanese soldiers.

On Nov. 7, Kovach was standing duty with LCpl. Greg Wal at Checkpoint 8. After a few hours of their duty, the Lebanese Armed Forces who were standing duty, abandoned their post and ran away down the street. “One soldier ran back to tell us, ‘Marines, you leave now. You got big assault coming to this bridge. You die here,’ and just like that he turned around and ran,” said Kovach.

“LCpl. Wal looked at me and said, ‘what are we gonna do?’ said Kovach. “I said to him, ‘well our fifth general order says we don’t leave post until we are properly relieved, so we are gonna stay right here.'”

Shortly after this discussion, they got into intense firefights, and Wal was wounded in action. Wal was evacuated under the bridge by Kovach in case they were overran and they wouldn’t find him. Using armament left behind by the Lebanese soldiers, Kovach held his position against an assault of 50 to 100 enemy forces.

It was about 4 hours into the fight until the battalion was able to render aid to his position. The mortarman dropped over 100 mortars in danger close firings on the bridge and the buildings around it.

Around 4.a.m., a military truck arrived to evacuate his platoon. After a brief argument about leaving, Kovach got into the back of the truck and rode through Beirut towards the barracks. This was when he saw the aftermath for the first time.

“I jumped out of the back of the truck, and I swear to god I’d never smelled anything so vile in all my life,” said Kovach.

“I saw the craters, and the piles of debris were 15 feet high,” said Kovach. “It was like they took a bulldozer and piled all of that building into these gigantic piles of concrete.”

Two vehicles laden with explosives targeted the barracks for 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, and the barracks for 3rd Company of France’s 1st Parachute Chasseur Regiment, killing 220 U.S. Marines, 18 Navy Sailors, three Army Soldiers, and 58 French Paratroopers. To this day, the bombing remains the largest single-day loss of life for the U.S. Marine Corps since the battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, as well as one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

The Aftermath

For the Marines deployed to Beirut at the time, the barracks bombing was not the only day of conflict. The months leading up to the bombing and the days afterwards leading to the evacuations of the Marines were filled with constant firefights. According to Kovach, the commander of Alpha Company requisitioned over 50,000 rounds of ammunition a day for the company, in which most of it was used.

“Beirut was the most violent place I’d ever seen, and that includes movies, pictures, or anything,” said Kovach. “I’ve seen all kinds of war stuff, and I think to myself I’ve seen way more combat than that.”

One of Kovach’s best friends, Sgt. John Weant, an infantryman squad leader in 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, was wounded in action in Beirut and received a Purple Heart from combat actions there.

Over a month before the barracks bombing, Weant was at the perimeter with his platoon hanging out with Kovach when one of the first major firefights began.

“In the evening we started taking fire so I had to leave Dan’s position and I could take charge of my squad,” said Weant. “I had to cross an open area to return to my position and stuff was flying overhead, and that’s when I knew the situation was bad.”

Weant and his squad were dug into a series of bunkers and trenches next to each other, where they took fire all night long. On the next morning, Weant was checking his Marines positions when they began to take rocket and mortar fire from the nearby hills. One explosive hit the command tent where the platoon sergeant was briefing the platoon commander on the situation.

"We were taking such intense small arms fire from the hills that med evac couldn’t get to us by helicopter" Sgt. John Weant, 1st Platoon, Alpha Company

The blast threw Weant off his feet knocking him unconscious. When he recovered, he ran towards the command tent with some of his Marines and a corpsman. The platoon sergeant did not survive the blast, but the platoon commander was evacuated to Weant’s squad’s position where the corpsman attempted to treat his wounds.

“We were taking such intense small arms fire from the hills that med evac couldn’t get to us by helicopter,” said Weant. “About 45 minutes later they were able to get two AMTRACs to us and evacuate us.”

Weant and several other wounded Marines were loaded onto the AMTRACs including his platoon commander who succumbed to his injuries in transit. Weant was severely wounded. After being sent to several military hospitals for treatment, he was sent home to New Haven CT., for convalescent leave.

Weant was still recovering on Oct. 23 when news of the bombing reached America.

“I was out with buddies and when I came home and flipped on the TV, and it was on immediately,” said Weant. “I just knew that I had lost a lot of my brothers in that building.”

Weant was glued to the screen as the news broadcast displayed a banner listing the ever-growing names of Marines confirmed killed in action.

“I was beside myself,” said Weant. “All I wanted to do was go back to my unit and fight.”

“I did whatever I could to get back to my unit. I did everything the doctors told me to do,” said Weant. “I worked twice as hard to get rehabilitated.”

Gold Star Families

While still recovering and watching the news broadcasts, Weant’s mother told him about a Blue Star Family in Naugatuck, CT., now a Gold Star Family. A Blue Star Family is the immediate family of a service member during a time of conflict. A Gold Star Family is the immediate family of a fallen service member who died during a time of conflict. The family had a Marine from the same platoon as Weant, who had been transferred to the BLT and was killed in the bombing.

“My mother talked me into going to visit that family and I spent the next few days visiting with them,” said Weant. “It was unbelievable. Even though they lost their son, they took me in. To this day they all treat me like a brother. It’s incredible.”

Sometime later, Weant heard of another gold star family, the family of Donald Giblin, a machine gunner with Alpha Company. This was the Marine who sat in the staircase with Kovach in Beirut. His brother, Sgt. Timothy Giblin, was a radio operator killed in the BLT building.

Donald accompanied his brother’s body home, and Weant traveled all the way from Connecticut to Providence, RI. He spent a week with the family.

"From then on it was all about the support of the Gold Star Families" Sgt. John Weant, 1st Platoon, Alpha Company

These visits were the first of many. For Weant, they were some of the hardest, but most rewarding, experiences he’d had in his life.

“It was an amazing feeling the way those families treated me,” said Weant. “From then on, it was all about the support of the Gold Star Families.”

Weant was not the only Marine from Beirut who shared a feeling of obligation to the gold star families.

For Kovach, filling these gaps have been hugely important throughout his life. “All the things they [the Gold Star Families] were missing. We stood there and we filled that gap,” said Kovach.

“The Gold Star Families were missing something,” said Kovach. “Not just their Marine, but the things that come after the Marine Corps; a husband, a father, an uncle, a grandfather.”

Since Beirut

Over the last 40 years Weant, Kovach, and many other veterans of Beirut, and the members of the Gold Star Families remain close. These Marines travel great distances keeping up the bonds and camaraderie alive, visiting each other when they are ill, attending funerals, and supporting each other.

Weant and Kovach have been best friends since infantry training and continued to look after the Gold Star Families together with the other surviving Marines from Beirut. The veterans hold a memorial service in October in Jacksonville, N.C., every year in honor of the Marines that were lost. At the fifth annual memorial service for the Marines lost in the bombings at Beirut, Weant and the other surviving Marines started connecting with a lot of the Gold Star Family members, because there were so many gathered there.

“Getting close with these families really helped with our healing, but it was more so important for the Gold Star Families for us to be part of their families,’ said Weant. “It was an amazing feeling the way they took us in.”

Among those present at this memorial was the family of Sergeant William Pollard, a personnel clerk who was killed in the BLT building. His wife Margaret Pollard brought with her nine-year-old Stacey Pollard, who had to grow up without a father. Weant and Kovach became close with the family visiting anytime they came through the town they lived in, as well as the yearly memorial service. These Marines would eventually extend their care and affection for Stacey’s oldest son, William Smith.

“We always looked at it as standing in the gap. He couldn’t be there to be a grandfather, so we did,” said Kovach. “We talked on the phone, wrote letters, saw him several times throughout the year.”

Margaret unfortunately passed away a few years ago, and the bond Weant and Kovach had with the family only grew stronger. For Stacey Pollard, being a Gold Star Family member is very important and she eventually became a board member for The Beirut Veterans of America fraternity. The goal of the fraternity is to continue telling the story of Beirut so that the Marines who served there are never forgotten.

Smith spent a lot of time around Weant and Kovach as well as the other veterans of Beirut, especially during the memorial services. Every year, the surviving Marines get together in the parking lot of a Holiday Inn Express in Jacksonville and tell their war stories.

“William loves to talk to these guys. He always asks them questions about what the Marine Corps is like. He wanted to know anything he could about his grandpa,” said Stacey. “He loved hearing stories from them, joking with them, and they basically treat him like a nephew.”

Smith has attended almost every year since he was six-years-old.

"What impacted me most from these Marines was the camaraderie. After all these years, they were still close friends,” said Smith. “All these Marines, some who stood side-by-side in Beirut, and others who never saw each other, still share a close bond.”

In Oct. 2023, the Marines with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, now nicknamed the ‘Beirut Battalion,’ celebrated The Marine Corps 248th birthday. For the birthday, the battalion hosted a ball and had several Beirut veterans and family members in attendance including Weant, Kovach, and the Pollard family.

"It was breathtaking, to know that he is carrying on his grandfather’s honor" Stacey Pollard, Daughter of Sgt William Pollard (USMC, KIA)

During the ball, the Battalion Commander, Lt Col. William Kerrigan, brought the attention to the Pollard family and announced that Smith would be enlisting in the Marine Corps the following year as an infantryman. When the announcement was made, Smith received a standing ovation from all in attendance.

“It was breathtaking, to know that he is carrying on his grandfather’s honor,” said Stacey. “The pride that everybody had in him for choosing to enlist was amazing.”

“Every Marine in that room stood up and gave him applause, and I stood up and did the same,” said Kovach.

“He wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. He is like a surrogate son to me, and I was blown away,” said Weant “It was probably one of the best days of my life.”

Kerrigan, as well as many of the Marines in the unit, told Smith that he will always have a place in their battalion should he choose to go there.

Boot Camp

Smith arrived to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island for recruit training in March. In the beginning of training, Smith did not believe he would think of his grandfather, but that changed quickly. When things started to get hard, Smith began to question his decisions and would pray that his grandfather was watching over him.

“Every time I thought I couldn’t get through this, I thought to myself, ‘you currently have on the uniform that he died in, so I better give it my all before I say I can’t do this,’” said Smith.

On May 18, Smith completed the Crucible and received a special surprise when he stood before the Iwo Jima monument to receive his Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.

"Out of the corner of my eye I saw them. I thought ‘there is no way that’s them" William Smith, Grandson of Sgt William Pollard (USMC, KIA)

Smith was in the front of the formation, and was shocked when Weant and Kovach stood in front of him.

“Out of the corner of my eye I saw them. I thought ‘there is no way that’s them,” said Smith. “They pointed at me and smiled, and I almost broke down in tears.”

When Weant and Kovach joined the Marines, the ceremony had not been implemented, but that does not mean it had any less of an emotional impact.

“When they platoon marched in, William was in the front. When he saw us, I saw a little smile appear on his face, and he stood taller and straighter,” said Weant. “It gave him a little boost of energy and pride—and God you could see the pride in him.”

Normally the handover of the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor is an honor reserved for the drill instructors of the platoon, but in exceptional circumstances exemptions are made. Weant was the one to give Smith his EGA, an incredible emotional moment for the both of them.

“Being the one to hand him his EGA, I had a hard time composing myself,” said Weant. It filled me with pride. It was incredible.
Standing right next to Weant was his best friend Kovach, who had one brief message for Smith.

“I did everything in my power to try and hold in my emotions, but I couldn’t hold it in, so I teared up, said Kovach. “I looked right in his eyes and said one thing, ‘Wear it well.’”

Smith graduated recruit training on May, 31, and has hopes of following in his grandfather’s footsteps—by serving as an infantryman in 1st Battalion, 8th Marines.