PTSD in the Foreign Service — The Embassy Beirut Bombing
In an unprecedented suicide attack on Americans, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed on April 18, 1983. The tragedy has been called the first terrorist attack by religious radicals on an American embassy. Seventeen Americans, including Foreign Service Officers and USAID workers, were killed in the blast while sixty-seven of their colleagues survived. In her Master’s thesis at Georgetown University done in 1994, FSO and Beirut survivor Anne Dammarell analyzes how fellow survivors dealt with the bombing and its aftermath. Dammarell’s work investigates the State Department’s response to the crisis and suggests improvements to help diplomats prepare for future attacks and cope with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
As Dammarell notes, “I was in the first bombing of our embassy in Beirut in the early afternoon of April 18, 1983 and one of only two survivors in the cafeteria. Although seriously wounded, years slipped by before I accepted the reality of my injuries, because I did not want to believe that my physical capacity had been limited and that my life had changed. Yet my life had changed profoundly: I had felt the pain and isolation of a near-death episode and had gained insight into the brevity and joy of life. At age forty-five, I had confronted my own mortality. Ten years later, I am still plumbing the meaning of that experience. The bombing was dramatic and, perhaps, the most significant event of my life.”
You can also read about John Limbert’s experience as an Iran hostage. The Department has made many changes since Dammarell wrote her thesis. Read the Foreign Service Journal’s in-depth articles on the evolution of MED’s health services, mental health care overseas, and reactions from several Foreign Service members.
The Attack — Initial Reactions
Many diplomats felt an initial sense of shock and an inability to consider the reality of what had just happened in the bombing. Others reported feeling eerily calm and concerned primarily for their own physical safety, only processing later the true gravity of the situation.
FSO Ryan Crocker:
I was, and all those around me were, extremely calm, including those injured. Time seemed to move in very, very slow motion. A very methodical process of looking after the injured and moving people out got underway…The enormity of what had happened was clear because that [Post One, the main entrance to the embassy] was like walking into hell. It was pitch black. The face of the building had collapsed in on the lobby and fires were burning inside. It was very clear that no one in that area could possibly have survived.
FSO Barbara Gregory:
It was so eerie. It really was. No noise. No nothing. I would come down a few steps and stop and listen. I thought everybody was dead but me. I had forgotten about seeing all my friends running out and thought, “I’m the only one alive.” But anyway, it was really traumatic. I went into this shock type thing and I just sort of stayed that way.
Program Officer Tish Butler:
I was feeling a strong sense of responsibility to try to pull the group together and to decide what to do to make sure everybody was o.k. I was scared, since I didn’t know where the bomb had come from and was afraid that some gas stored in the embassy might explode. I felt the need for us to get out of the building. For 24 or 36 hours, I didn’t have a clue of what had really happened.
It was like we were all zombies.
Immediately Following the Attack
Survivors commented on the need to return to normalcy immediately following the tragedy, to remain calm and continue their daily jobs. Without time to fully process what had happened, diplomats often felt feeling both normal and numb about the events before they were able to emotionally engage and mourn.
Ambassador to Lebanon Robert Dillon: (in photo at left)
You’re so busy doing what you’re doing that you don’t have time to reflect on the horror. I think that’s what happened to all of us. We acted surprisingly normal, although we were really not. A psychiatrist was sent out from the Department of State. I think it was the same doctor I saw after the terrorist attack in Kuala Lumpur.
He talked to us. I remember saying to him: “I am surprised how normal I feel”. He told me that was a normal and typical reaction. The defensive mechanism that we all have inside had come to the fore. If we didn’t have that mechanism, we could not have functioned. That made me feel better, because I was concerned about my reaction.
Various chemical reactions tended to keep us calm, carrying us straight through, dovetailing with exhaustion. We went several nights without sleep, supervising the search and recovery of bodies.
USIS Secretary Beth Samuel:
I never thought about something like that happening to me. I hadn’t even considered it, but I did find that I was much stronger than I ever would have thought. Going to work the next morning, pitching in, helping set up offices, and going to see the families of the people who died — I just automatically did these things because I knew they had to be done. I never would have thought that I would be strong enough to do that.
Because we went right back to work immediately, I don’t remember doing a whole lot of processing. I remember looking deeply into a lot of people’s eyes and saying, ‘Are you o.k.?’, and making sure in my own sense that they would be all right. I don’t remember sitting down to counsel anybody or being counseled. So I think a number of people quite frankly may have suffered whatever reaction they may have had there because of going right back to work.
Dealing with Grief
Interviewees mentioned the first time they cried after the bombing. Some suffered from recurring nightmares and fear of loud noises in the days and weeks following April 18. For all involved, their reactions to the trauma differed over time versus immediately following the event. Dammarell had horrible nightmares in the year that followed the bombing.
The nightmares were always violent and often located in a foreign country. In one I got shot three times on my left side and drove around looking for a hospital, happy to be alive. Another time, my hands were tied behind my back and I was shot in the head by a Philippine death squad. In another, I was back in Beirut in an elevator and one of the two cables snapped.
These nightmares became so commonplace that I could actually tell myself that I was having a “bombing dream” and move on to something else without waking up.
I didn’t break down until about ten days later. I went to the AUB [American University of Beirut] chapel to talk to the families of those who had died. It was a memorial service and they were all there. John Reid had helped me to write out a brief talk. I stood there, looking at these very sad and unhappy faces and they in turn were looking at the American Ambassador as if he would be able to say something that would make everything well.
So there I was looking at all these people, whose family members had been blown to pieces. I got most of the way though the speech. When I got to the last sentence, a sob welled up and I stopped. I couldn’t say anything more. I was in tears. I felt so inadequate and sad looking at all those people. People would have liked to hear that their relatives died for some noble cause. They didn’t!
Within a few minutes, I recovered, but it was one of the saddest moments in my life in that chapel. I wished I could have done something for those people.
FSO Dorothy Pech:
It wasn’t until six weeks later when I was home. I went down to Texas where my son was graduating from college…I started to tell him about something. I barely could talk and I felt so stupid, but the tears started coming.
Long- Term Effects — Normalcy and PTSD
Dammarell investigated how survivors coped with the bombing’s after effects in both the short and long term. Responses varied, with some reflecting that the attack significantly altered his or her life and others simply gaining a greater appreciation for life. Dammarell found that even years after the event, survivors reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress, similar to those faced by war veterans and victims of other trauma. Although the Department of State addressed the needs of the FSOs, it did not provide sufficient training and follow-up support to allow them to acknowledge and to recognize, acknowledge, and process the trauma.
FSO Barbara Gregory:
All I did was feel this horrible, horrible sorrow that somebody could do this to innocent people and their own people. You never get over something like that. It’s something I’ve never gotten over.”
FSO Beth Samuel:
When the five-year mark came…[a friend] said something about what happened five years ago…I started crying and I cried and I cried and I cried and I cried. Even now when I talk to people I feel tears, whereas I didn’t the first couple of years after it happened. I guess I was just in denial or blocking it out.
FSO Christine Crocker:
[The bombing] is one of those events that you think about on a fairly regular basis and for an unknown reason, I don’t know why. It’s something I think about a lot. I don’t know how to change that. Deep down change that. I can’t tell you exactly why. I don’t think it’s made me a better person. I know that if it ever happened to me [again], I could still carry on.
USAID Secretary Rebecca Smith:
[After the bombing] I was having nightmares. I’m a nightmare person. I have horrible dreams every night. I have such dreams that I wonder where they are coming from, but I mean, to this day I have horrible dreams, but I don’t relive the bombing anymore. I’ve gotten that out of my mind somehow.
I thought I would be reliving it for a year, but I wasn’t. I would say in four to six months it was gone. Almost the memory of it was gone. I think also that it causes you to feel aches and pains or something. I think that you kind of feel sorry for yourself that you let yourself get in that position.
I don’t know if explosions frighten me now, but I feel apprehensive when I hear an explosion… I had a kind of recurrent reaction, one of sadness. I would think of this thing and feel immensely, immensely sad. And then anger. Sadness, anger, sadness, anger.
Communications Officer Faith Lee:
The bombing made me more alert. It made me more suspicious. When I first came home, I would hear a car backfire, I was, like, jumping, but I got over that. But, it just made me know that you cannot trust, you cannot let your guard down, especially if you’re in a post overseas. You are in such a precarious position, just as the Americans were over there. We should have been walking on eggs over there, but we weren’t.
Communications Officer Barbara Gregory:
It has never, never left me. It has never left. Phyllis [who died in the bombing] I’ve never forgotten, and I’ve never forgotten anyone. It’s embedded in my brain and I don’t usually talk about it…
I loved my life. It’s just I hated the violence and how it affects me. I was never afraid of thunderstorms or lightning. Now I can’t take any loud noises anymore. Thunder makes me so very nervous. Thunderstorms, that’s where I notice it the most, because I used to love them. Now down here, we have the supersonic booms and I practically have a nervous breakdown every time I hear any explosions or loud noises. I don’t dwell on it, I just have a hard time with loud explosions, which I never did before, and even in Cambodia they had the rocket attacks. It never really bothered me. But Beirut changed everything.
On the other hand, some people reported no long-term effects at all:
FSO Dorothy Pascoe:
The bombing didn’t make any difference in my life. I look back, of course. Many people ask, “Oh, you were in Beirut, were you there during the bombing?” I have to go through this whole thing with them, where I was, how I felt, and the whole thing. It’s about the only time I really think about it.
I mean, I remember that I was there and what happened. Sure, I think about it. Not in a bad way, because I tell everybody that I really enjoyed my tour while I was over there, and I did! I really did enjoy my tour with everything that was going on. When you go into the Foreign Service, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve got to expect something like this. Particularly in these volatile type countries.
It didn’t really affect me all that much. I don’t know if I’m a strong personality, or what. I was crushed that so many people and friends were killed, but personally it didn’t bother me. It really didn’t. We had the psychiatrist there and I didn’t need to talk to her because I didn’t need to.
USAID Employee Ronald Kurt Shafer:
I reckon it’s the single most trying experience I’ve had, but it was not all that traumatic, all that life-threatening. More in the mind. A natural threat of damage to the person.
Evaluating the State Department’s Response: Short Term
Dammarell asked Beirut survivors to evaluate the treatment provided by the State Department in the bombing’s aftermath. Though Washington sent three psychologists and grief counselors to Lebanon immediately, some FSOs found their services to be ineffective. Others complained that they received lacking follow-up treatment and noted that a stigma towards mental health care still remains in the State Department.
We were all encouraged, indeed directed, to see [the psychiatrist]. She was very pleasant, very level-headed. She was good in the sense that she was not demanding that you unveil a crisis to her. If you were feeling o.k., it was fine with her. I had a very brief conversation with her. Generally speaking, I thought it was nice that they sent in a psychiatrist. I didn’t really feel the need then or afterwards to talk to one.
FSO David Mandel:
This was ten years ago and we were learning a lot of things at that time. I don’t think that the people in the business really understood all of the ramifications. I don’t think the State Department at that stage was all that sensitive and concerned. I mean they were: “Just get on with the business, and if you need help, it’s there.”
It’s not like now: when you get some sort of really traumatic experience, they send in whole teams. They have organized activities and they say, “Everybody will come and we’ll talk.” It’s much more aggressive, because people like me are very introspective.
My tendency is to withdraw into myself. Far as I know I did fine. I didn’t have any real problems, but I think there are people who draw into themselves and do have problems, unless the assistance that is being offered is more proactive. It sometimes doesn’t reach the people it needs to reach. Beirut was the first time that we and the United States Government facilities were really subjected to this kind of stuff outside the military. It was the early days. My impression is that now, when things like this happen, State is a lot more proactive in going after people and saying, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, sit down and let’s talk.”
Evaluating the State Department’s Response: Long Term
Many survivors commented on the greater need for State to establish long-term follow up procedures for the bombing survivors, such as ten-year anniversary commemorations. For some, losing touch with colleagues who also went through the bombing became a problem. A further complication was the lack of media attention and analysis given to the bombing in the years that followed. Although a later bombing in 1984 of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut drew significant attention and later commemoration, the previous embassy attack remained relatively unknown to the American public.
The thing that has bothered me is that nobody seems to remember that we were bombed first. I mean, there’s been no publicity. You never see that date mentioned. I mean, this year nobody mentioned it. The date that everyone talks about is the day the Marines were bombed. I understand that 200 and something young men lost their lives, but nobody seems to understand that what happened to us was a milestone in history because it had never happened before. It was a total violation of the Geneva Convention and everything else, yet nobody seems to remember that it happened.
They never did have a gathering of people. I don’t know if they felt that most people just wanted to get on with their lives and forget it, or what. But I think it would have been good for people to get together. I would like to see how people are. People we never saw again. (At right, Marine bombing memorial at Camp Lejeune.)
It was kind of interesting with the ten-year anniversary they held that memorial service for the Marines. I said, “Gee, fine. Think about it for the Marines, but nobody thought about it for all those people that died in the Embassy.” At least, I never saw anything like a memorial service like they did for the Marines.
It really is funny how the whole institutional memory seems to suppress that, the whole remembrance of it. I think it’s part of the cycle of, “Oh God, look what happened. We’ve got to spend money, spend money.” Now all of a sudden we’re starting to get this, “Boy, why are we spending all this money on security? Look at this waste of money.” We’re on a downswing and have been for several years, with budget cuts and deficits. How do we justify this and that?
Legacy of the Bombing on Embassy Security
Numerous survivors agreed that the Beirut bombing transformed the State Department’s approach to diplomatic security. After the embassy attack, the Advisory Panel on Overseas Security created the new Bureau of Diplomatic Security to address heightened security concerns abroad. The new bureau would address training for high-threat posts as well as investigate the physical security of embassy facilities. Congress also passed the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Anti-terrorism Act in 1986 in response to the attack, appropriating more money for security at diplomatic posts.
I’m troubled, indeed saddened, by the defenses behind which our people live. Embassies look like giant prisons. They’re big fortresses. Isolated.
And yet I remind myself that if we had had something like that in Lebanon, we would have been secure. Secure and they could not have blown up the Embassy. If anyone wants to pursue a Foreign Service life, this is part of it. It’s like being in the Army. There isn’t any safe way to do it. If the danger of terrorism makes it impossible for you to go out and interact with other people, you’d better not do it
Daniel Pellegrino, Defense Attaché’s office:
I think the Embassy was bombed due to negligence of some people who didn’t think it could really happen. The American Embassy was sort of sacred, and they thought it would never get bombed. A lot of people didn’t think the threat to Americans was really there. I think there was negligence. Beirut was a free-fire zone in those days, and they should have known that we really needed to beef the security up…
Later, when I started at Defense Attaché School there at Anacostia, the instructor came in the first day and said, “Well, here is your first class and it’s about terrorism, and the first thing I want to tell you is that if somebody’s out to get you, they’re going to get you. They wanted the American Embassy in Beirut and they got it. They wanted the Marines and they got them.” So if you’re forearmed with this knowledge of how these people act and their objectives and goals and how they go about it, you have an understanding. At least the United States government should arm you with that before they send you someplace.
Suggestions for Improving the State Department’s Post-Trauma Policy
When she wrote her thesis in 1994, Dammarell contended that the Department did not yet officially acknowledge that violence had a long-term effect on those involved, even if only indirectly. If they had, “education about the effects of trauma would have been built into the existing training programs at all levels and relevant staff would have been trained to handle FSOs confronting trauma. By not paying attention to the FSOs’ experience in Beirut, the State Department’s indifference, a form of institutional denial, camouflaged the significance of their trauma. The predominant Foreign Service culture has yet to rid itself of the outdated attitude that any attention to mental health betrays a weakness. The notion that using the services of educators and counselors as a form of preventive medicine and a way of educating oneself on normal human development has not caught hold.”
Although cognizant that Beirut was a danger post, most FSOs were not prepared for the reality of the bombing. The State Department seminar, “Coping with Violence Abroad,” was not sufficient preparation. Even though the subsequent “Security Overseas Seminar” (SOS), and various training videos on the psychological aspects of trauma and stress management were developed (after the Beirut bombing), not all FSOs benefit from them because of a lack of administrative tracking. No foolproof method of scheduling FSOs for SOS every five years, or of showing the training videos overseas, exists [as of 1994]. Currently, due to budgetary cutbacks, Diplomatic Security’s crisis management simulation exercise program and its videomaking capacity have been eliminated.
Testaments of the Beirut survivors support Dammarell’s arguments that the State Department should do more to prepare officers for an increasingly dangerous world.
I don’t think we had any preparations at all. I think there should be more preparation for people to get them to face the fact that this could happen. These are the things that you must face. Are you ready for it? You and your family should have preparations for it in case your spouse is killed and you’re not there. It’s not things people want to talk about, but I think they should be forced to if they are going to go into situations like that.
I think there needs to be a greater emphasis [on security] in overseas missions. In Washington, they have this course and they think it is fine. When you get to post, emergency evacuation plans, bomb preparedness plans, who’s responsible for what, that sort of stuff, should be run through with people. But it isn’t done. They are supposed to be briefing the newcomers but it doesn’t take place. People tend to avoid. It’s a real problem. They say, it can’t happen here. It’s very safe. A safe post tends to get a little sloppy, and it’s hard to get people to keep their guards up. I tend to say the people who have experienced the full consequences of not keeping their guard up are more inclined to take precautions.
Security Officer Dick Gannon:
I guess the Department prepares the Foreign Service personnel as well as they can be prepared for the great unknown. The issue from my standpoint is that people who have joined the Foreign Service must accept the fact that they may be putting themselves, possibly their families, at increased risk simply because they are representing the United States Government abroad. Are they willing to accept that?
I think each individual needs to weigh that very carefully, because you do not have the guarantees abroad — even if you are carrying that diplomatic passport — that we basically have here in the States. You don’t have the protection. I think the Department has gone a long way in terms of briefing programs, addressing these types of issues, and certainly the Department and Congress have gone a long way in trying to put security resources in the right locales. But then again, terrorism is not something that is easily contained. We no sooner build a secure facility in one country and we have an incident pop up in another country.
Drawing on her own experiences and those of fellow survivors, Dammarell made three major suggestions to change State Department policy in a crisis event:
1. Develop a policy based on the recognition that stress (and often catastrophic stress) caused by international terrorism and political turmoil has become a norm for Foreign Service Officers; openly provide crisis intervention and follow-up to those FSO involved in overseas trauma.
2. Educate all those in the Foreign Service about post- traumatic stress and how to manage it. Insure that ambassadors and DCMs, especially political appointees who have not had the benefit of hardship posts or military experience, are informed about the psychological aspects of terrorism. At a minimum, top management should be given the same information which is presented to Foreign Service Officers in the “Security Overseas Seminar.”
3. Train members of the health care units at the missions, as well as the regional psychiatrists, in critical incident stress debriefing techniques. Contract U.S. and, if available, local mental health workers to support Foreign Service Officers following a disaster.