Jackson and Beirut

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Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user DUP Photos.

In 2008, while working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, I traveled to Mississippi, as a “released staff” to the AFL-CIO to cover the unions’ campaign for Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, running for U.S. Senate.

While there, I helped organize a rally at the state capitol in Jackson, bringing union activists from across the state to attend an appearance by then-U.S. Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) in support of Musgrove. On that day, I witnessed this riveting exchange. 

Jackson and Beirut

Jim Webb went straight to the veterans,

black American Legionnaires in full regalia,

good ole boys in fatigue jackets.

His was no feigned respect, but

empathy, sturdy as the cornerstone

of Jackson’s War Memorial,

where the junior senator from Virginia came

to introduce a candidate for Mississippi’s seat,

empathy burnt into his identity on the rice paddies in Vietnam,

honed in novels of blood, pain and sacrifice,

on and off the battlefield,

respect burnished in the boxing ring,

fused with the pride of a marine

who barged into Harvard Law School,

rose to Secretary of the Navy,

stood in his son’s combat boots,

challenging a president and his war of choice.

He reached out to grasp the hand of one of the vets, a postal worker.

The senator might as well have been a ghost.

Recoiling, the postal worker said, “We’ve met before.”

Their eyes met, brimming with a power that left me,

who never served, an outsider, a voyeur.

The postal worker returned after Webb finished his endorsement.

He explained his quick retreat in three words.

“First Battalion, Beirut.”

Now, in their eyes, I saw the pain of 241 families.

On that mild October day in Mississippi,

their warrior’s bond was complete and I,

the outsider,

shivered in the explosive grief.