Drs. Ware, Bigelow awarded Bronze Star after Beirut bombing
They lecture together sometimes on "the psychological environment of mass casualty," best of friends, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as they saw themselves then and can still chuckle about.
But Dr. James J. Ware and Dr. Gilbert Bigelow, Navy dental officers, had no idea of the carnage awaiting their triage, the chaos awaiting organization, as they jokingly rushed from sleep to leadership on Oct. 23, 1983.
"I stooped to take a picture of a sandbag torn apart because I didn't know, joking that that was close, I'm glad I hadn't slept on that. It was cavalier, gallows humor," said Dr. Ware, then a lieutenant, now a captain planning and directing international humanitarian missions (See related report on USNS Comfort mission).
Dr. Bigelow retired two years ago as a Navy captain and is in private practice in Hampton, Va.
"We were called peacekeepers, to keep the airport in Beirut open." The two dental officers supported a 1,200-Marine Corps unit stationed with the U.S.-French Multinational Force in Lebanon.
Prioritizing on the run, they quickly found themselves in charge, the chief medical officer/physician and many of the medics buried in the rubble of the first of two bombings, minutes apart, which would claim the lives of 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel, three Army soldiers and 54 French paratroopers.
"We decided I would go down to the blast site and Jim would run triage in the area," said Dr. Bigelow. Their chief physician dead, as they would learn, "that just left us, me and Jim Ware and several corpsmen. Figuring the enormity of it, we figured we would go into triage and do the best we could with what we had, sorting bodies and individuals out and either getting them to the helicopter zone and directly out or up to Jim.
"When you look around and you're the one standing, you're the one standing," Dr. Bigelow said. "We had physicians who came from the ship but Gil and I orchestrated what was going on," said Dr. Ware.
They worked that way through the long and bloody day of the Beirut barracks bombing, triaging patients, handling the morgue. It would be the deadliest single-day death toll for the U.S. military since Vietnam and, for the Marine Corps, since World War II.
"My question was, does he (this patient) stay here? Does he need to go now? This is the hard part," said Capt. Ware. "There were a very few patients, you know that patient isn't going to go. Do I have the medical qualifications to make that call? You begin to make the decision. I did what I had to do."
"In this particular situation, it was just incumbent on me to make decisions and act on them," Dr. Bigelow said. "Where should these patients go? What should we do for them? Let's get these civilians taken care of. We had to deal with tactical difficulty and the medical situation."
A Colombian journalist in June described Capt. Ware as "an intense man with a confident and elegant stride. He does not talk about his past. For this reason very few of those who accompany him on the Comfort hospital ship … know about his time as a dentist in the peace mission in Beirut, Lebanon; none can imagine how the two truck bombs that exploded on an October morning in 1983 … have defined his character and how he handles his missions today."
"It was a moment in my life that was important and shaped who I am and my understanding of processes and to some extent my confidence in doing certain things," Dr. Ware told the ADA News. "And I knew those people. Where I am today, that probably did shape my life and how I want to help people. If you think you can do it, you'll step forward and do it."
Dr. Bigelow, who "used to be in Special Operations in the Air Force," said, "I'd gotten wounded in Vietnam and some wonderful Army medics got me off a hot LZ (landing zone) in support of a Special Forces camp.
"Like a dummy, I thought, as a dentist, I wouldn't have to be faced with such things again. I would say this, I'm thankful. This is my contribution."
Each received a Bronze Star medal for their response in time of trial. The commendation "focuses on the triage and the individual patient care" as Dr. Ware recalled, or, as Dr. Bigelow put it, for "providing life support."
"He was Butch Cassidy," Capt. Ware said in a telephone interview some 25-26 years from the day of triage. "I'm the Sundance Kid. Like a good big brother, he said, 'we're going to have to take the bull by the horns.' I give John Hudson, my physician, a friend who was killed, credit for the planning, for making sure we were all integrated into the medical plan. I give Gil credit for his maturity."
There's a scene near the end of the 1969 Oscar-winning film when our two cinematic friends are about to make a run from shelter and Butch tells Sundance, "For a moment there, I thought we were in trouble."
The barracks bombing led to the withdrawal of the international peacekeeping force from Lebanon. The United States called it an act of terrorism.