29 May Memorial Day Highlight: James Gadson
The sun had not yet risen on the USMC barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that late October morning in 1983 when a 19-ton yellow Mercedes Benz StakeBed truck turned onto an access road leading into the compound.
For the 1st Battalion 8th Marines stationed there, the appearance of a vehicle raised a bit of confusion.
Was this the water truck they were expecting?
As it circled into the parking lot, it was clear it was not.
As it entered the lot, the vehicle accelerated and crashed through the barbed wire barrier, which popped, sounding like “somebody walking on twigs,” according to a witness.
Maintaining speed, it rammed through the fence and blasted into the barracks.
The truck sat steaming in the middle of the lobby until the lobby suddenly disappeared.
Rather than supplies, the truck carried 2,000 pounds of explosives, resulting in the largest non-nuclear explosion since Hiroshima, according to the FBI.
220 Marines, 18 U.S. Navy sailors, and 3 U.S. Army soldiers lost their lives.
Local veteran, James Gadson, remembers that day in Beirut. He was assigned to assist the medics flying back from picking up bodies. Many of whom had never seen one before.
“The medics got discombobulated,” he said. “(It) was one of the most touching things I ever saw in my life. It was devastating.”
Gadson does not dwell on this memory. He moves over it quickly. For him, his time in service was a lot more than that. It was steeped in connection, new skill sets, and it was sometimes a relaxing and easy job. He is proud of his time.
Gadson signed up for the Army when he was 28- the oldest in his unit. He said he joined because his life was getting off track, and he felt he needed the change. He was stationed in Port Gordon and then Fort Sill, Oklahoma, after basic training. He worked in communications with tanks establishing range control. He loved it there and claimed it was the “easiest job I ever had.”
Germany was not as easy as he needed to learn the language quickly. However, he made many friends there, where he encrypted and decrypted enemy communications. While much of his work is still “classified,” he valued his experience with German hospitality and work ethic.
From 1984 to 2006, he served in the Army Reserves. The Reserves had him working communications at Desert Storm and the bombing at the Beirut Airport. Reflecting on this time, he said being scared is part of being human.
“All the dead people are brave people,” he observed.
Today, Gadson’s battles are not overseas but far closer to home. He was diagnosed with diabetes and is currently working with his doctor, nutritionists from UNF, and Feeding Northeast Florida’s Corner Market to improve his diet. He is at the market every week, getting fresh fruits, vegetables, and salt-free dry goods for his meals. He also likes to share them with neighbors facing the same issue.
“The Corner Market has helped me tremendously,” he said. “It’s been a big impact on my life. “My diabetes has gotten better since going.”
Today, Gadson is at the Corner Market getting his fruits and vegetables for the week. He says hello to the staff working there. Everyone knows him. I asked him what an actual veteran does on Memorial Day.
“Sometimes I’ll go (to the cemetery) and visit one of the guys I know that ‘went on’ and say, ‘that could have been me’… (those men) did a good job for their country,” Gadson says. He looks down a bit, inward. Then with a brightened eye, he adds, “But mostly, it’s a good day for grilling out and enjoying the family.”