From Port Charlotte to Lebanon: Teacher was a Marine when embassy was bombed

After graduating from Charlotte High School, Florida, in 1981, Walter Whisenant went into the Marine Corps. He took basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. He transferred to Twenty-nine Palms, California, for communications school. After that he was sent to Camp Jejune, North Carolina. Finally he deployed to Beirut, Lebanon.

“It was a big city in rubble because it had been at war for a number of years,” he recalled. “I think we landed there in early February 1983. It was a few days before the American Embassy was bombed. Our 81-mm mortar unit was stationed at Beirut International Airport, three clicks from the embassy.

“Right after our division landed, I remember talking to several Marines who were there before we arrived. They said things were getting pretty hairy. Snipers were shooting at us and trying to infiltrate our position. For a 19-year-old Marine, it was a pretty scary place.

“When the embassy got bombed, our staff sergeant was up on our observation post and saw it blown up,” Whisenant recalled.

It was Feb. 18, 1983, when a suicide bomber ran his truck into the front of the six-story building. The 2,000 pounds of explosives he was carrying killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, and many more were wounded.

“Our unit, the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, was immediately mobilized as perimeter guard around the bombed embassy. Our job was to provide protection and secure all the secret paper in the building.

“By then our people were getting shot.”

Who was shooting?

“Many factions were shooting at us,” Whisenant said. “There were Russian-backed Syrians. There were also a Muslim faction against us. It was everybody against everybody.

“We went on patrol with British and French soldiers and of course we had the Lebanese Army. Our job was to keep the peace. It was a scary time when we were on patrol because snipers were shooting as us.

“Eventually we got liberty. We got two choices, the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders who came over. We could hang out with the cheerleaders for a day. Or we could go on leave to Izmir, Turkey for four days. I chose Izmir. It was nice.

“At one point while I was in Lebanon our unit had to rescue a group of Lebanese civilians in the mountains. We went up there with our deuce-and-a-half and got them. This was after our embassy was blown up.

“I think I told you the story about the old Lebanese woman who came out and gave us coffee,” he said. “I was standing in my bunker when this very old woman gave us small cups of very strong coffee she was carrying on a tray. It showed us there was some good people over there.

This was what the American Embassy in Beruit, Lebanon looked like after it was bombed by a terrorist truck bomber that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, in February 1983 while Whisenant  was serving there in the Marine Corps. Photo provided

This was what the American Embassy in Beruit, Lebanon looked like after it was bombed by a terrorist truck bomber that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans, in February 1983 while Whisenant was serving there in the Marine Corps. Photo provided

“It was a beautiful country before the civil war. They called it the Paris of the Mediterranean before the fighting. A lot of people were really nice. There were also some people who were not really nice. We would go into certain neighborhoods where we knew we were not welcome. These were neighborhoods where we knew something bad could happen to us.

“There are a lot of Christians over there. They have an American university in Lebanon,” Whisenant recalled. ‘We have strong connections with them.

“I was there four or five months. Then I came back to the States and served in a number of posts around the country for the next three years until I was discharged. I served with a lot of great Marines. I had a great time in the Marine Corps. I loved it.”

When he was discharged he took the G.I. Bill and went to college. After graduating with a degree in science, he worked in a number of jobs before going to work for the Charlotte County school system. He taught at Charlotte High School and Punta Gorda Middle School. Before that he was teaching at the Academy, an alternative school. He taught there a number of years.

“I taught middle school and high school students math, pre-algebra, algebra, and geometry. I’m the teacher everybody loves to hate.

“Right now I’m teaching at Punta Gorda Middle School, my old school, but back then it was called Punta Gorda Junior High. I was a student there in 1976, ’77, and ’78.

“My wife, Tara, is assistant principal at Port Charlotte High School. We have two children: Joseph, who is in the Air Force, and Rebecca, my daughter, who is a senior at the University of South Florida.”

Whisenant is pictured today at his Port Charlotte home. Sun photo by Don MooreName:
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This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, March 2, 2020, and is republished with permission.

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