Marine veteran Paul “Doc” Doolittle has been saving up his vacation time from his job as a security manager for a software development company and working through some holidays.
And he’s shed some pounds over the past year.
But the 62-year-old didn’t do much training for his three-week, 273-mile walk around Jacksonville, North Carolina.
“My heart and my mind are in it, and my body will keep up,” Doolittle told Marine Corps Times in September.
For the fourth time, the Colorado resident is spending the first three weeks of October walking one mile for every name inscribed on the Jacksonville memorial to U.S. service members stationed near that North Carolina community who fell in Beirut and Grenada four decades ago. He said his mission is for as many people as possible to remember the fallen.
Oct. 23 will mark the milestone 40th anniversary of the suicide bombings that killed 241 U.S. service members — 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three soldiers — stationed in the Lebanese capital, along with 58 French peacekeepers and six civilians.
But there are 273 names on the Beirut Memorial Wall. The higher number reflects the other American service members from the Jacksonville, North Carolina, community who were killed in different attacks in Beirut between 1982–1984 and in Marine Corps operations in Grenada, or who died later from injuries resulting from the October 1983 bombing, according to the Beirut Veterans of America.
Most of the U.S. service members who died in the October 1983 attack came from 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, a unit based at the nearby North Carolina base of Camp Lejeune.
The Jacksonville, North Carolina, community, deeply affected by the loss of so many residents, still holds a commemoration ceremony for the fallen service members each year.
Doolittle said he wants people to remember the magnitude of the tragedy for the Marine Corps community.
The 9/11 attacks were “horrific,” killing approximately 1 in 100,000 Americans, Doolittle said, using a rough estimate. The Beirut attack killed, using a similarly rough estimate, approximately 1 in 1,000 Marines.
“Our memories are erased or overwritten by other things, and this one just doesn’t deserve to be overwritten,” Doolittle said.
Doolittle, a son of Navy veterans, had started Marine boot camp in January 1981. On Oct. 23, 1983, he was an air defense controller stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina.
He and the Marines around him were left “devastated, and just furious” — though he said he later grew to understand, from serving as an embassy security guard in Beirut, that the Lebanese people weren’t to blame for what had happened. Investigators ultimately concluded the Iran- and Syria-backed terrorist group now known as Hezbollah was responsible for the attack.
After serving in the Marine Corps for 10.5 years and exiting as a sergeant, Doolittle settled down near his final duty station, in Aurora, Colorado, he said.
As the 25th anniversary of the Beirut attack approached in 2008, the Marine veteran had read online about someone’s plan to walk in memory of the fallen service members. But that person lacked a specific plan, according to Doolittle.
So Doolittle decided to make his own plan, and a tradition was born.
Every five years, he has traveled to North Carolina and walked the 273 miles during the first 23 days of October. After departing his Airbnb each morning, he wends his way around Jacksonville, sometimes joined by others — if they are willing to walk when he walks, and stop when he stops, so he can stay focused on making his mileage and steering clear of cars.
The Marine veteran plans out his daily mileage in a spreadsheet. He starts out logging 15-mile days to get ahead of the curve. As his body becomes weary from the repeated exertion, he scales down his daily targets.
Doolittle plans several routes that will cover the necessary distances while giving him places to refill his water bottle or get ice, he said. As he gets into a rhythm, he may walk the routes in the reverse direction to mix things up. He said he especially likes the designated walking and biking trails, which are safer than walking alongside a road.
On Oct. 23, he walks just two miles, accompanied by anyone who would like to join him.
Doolittle said he was inspired to culminate with that two-mile stretch after, in 2008, he met a woman who had lost two loved ones ― both her husband and brother ― in the attack. Sometimes she has joined him on those two miles; in 2013, around 15 people participated in that final walk, he said.
Doolittle wears a shirt that announces to passersby that he’s on a “Walk to Remember” Beirut veterans on the anniversary of the attack. He’ll have on hand some extra shirts, which he said he sells as an awareness tool, not to make a profit.
In 2013, as he walked past a restaurant, a bearded cook emerged to admire Doolittle’s own “fairly unique and robust full beard,” Doolittle recounted. Then the cook read his shirt.
“And he said, ‘My dad’s on that wall,’” Doolittle recalled. “I had a hard time talking for a minute.”
In 2023, Doolittle will get some help in spreading the message about the anniversary from Ashley and Shaun Leonard, farmers in northern Texas whom Doolittle got to know after he found out they did a corn maze in 2022 commemorating the 1942 Doolittle Raid of Tokyo.
Doc Doolittle, who said he is distantly related to Army Air Corps Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, traveled to Canyon, Texas, to meet the Leonards. The coincidence led to a friendship, and Doolittle said he told them he’d provide financial support to whatever maze they grew the following year.
The Leonards’ 20-acre corn maze this year commemorates the Beirut attack.
After his walk this year, Doolittle said, he plans to head to Texas to see for himself the maze. For 2023, the red shirt he will wear on his walk has a thank-you to the Leonards on the back.
Doolittle stressed that the walk isn’t about himself.
“I’m doing what I do by my choice,” he said. “It’s about the 273 that paid the price. That’s my focus.”