It’s been nearly 32 years since 241 U.S. military personnel were killed in a terrorist bomb attack on the Marine Corps barracks at Beirut International Airport. Fifty-eight members of the French military also died that day in a separate explosion.
A U.S. federal court found Iran responsible, and more than $2 billion in Iranian assets have been frozen for years.
It’s been a long court battle for bombing victims and family members to collect any of that money. A resident of Fort Mill whose father died in the Marine barracks explosion recently joined that fight.
John Kees was only 11 years old when he lost his father, Marion Kees. He said he always looked forward to receiving letters from him when his dad was on a six-month assignment in Beirut in that year. Kees still has those letters and keeps them in a worn cigar box. The last one is dated Oct. 2, 1983.
Kees carefully took the letter, addressed to Master John Kees, out of its envelope and read it aloud.
“Hi son, I hope this letter finds you well and happy. How are things going in school? Have you been up to grandma and granddaddy’s since they got back from Florida?”
Kees father also asked him about their favorite NFL and college football teams, the weather and the family’s cat and dog.
Three weeks from the date on that letter, an Iranian suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives through the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, where Navy medic Marion Kees was part of a multinational peacekeeping force. 241 people were killed. John Kees was devastated.
“Losing a dad at an early age you have a lot of feelings, a lot of anger,” he said. “It was an emotional roller coaster realizing he was not part of my life anymore.”
Kees is now part of a lawsuit, filed March 11, that seeks to hold Iran accountable for the bombing, but his primary legal adversaries are bombing victims and family members who sued almost 15 years ago. A judge has already ruled they’re entitled to $2.6 billion in frozen Iranian assets, but appeals have kept the money from being dispersed.
The group of 80 bombing victims and family members, who are part of Kees’ lawsuit, want to be included.
Attorneys for plaintiffs in the original lawsuits argue they’ve done all the work to get this far and shouldn’t have to share the money.
While appeals have frustrated the original plaintiffs, they’re an opportunity for others, says American University law professor Steve Vladeck.
“The best thing these new plaintiffs have going for them is this case is still alive and the Iranian bank is still appealing and so it’s not as if they’re trying to come in after the door has closed and they’re trying to open it,” Vladeck said. “The question is gonna be can they show that had they been part of this litigation all along they would have been entitled to the same damages that have already been awarded. If it gets that far the plaintiffs have a pretty good chance.”
Attorneys in the earlier lawsuits argue the new plaintiffs would cause more delays in distributing the money. That’s true, Vladeck said, but he doesn’t think it would be more than a few months. He says there’s a bigger question for the plaintiffs.
“Do they have a good explanation why they weren’t part of the lawsuit at the beginning and why it shouldn’t be held against them that they’re showing up at the eleventh hour?” Vladeck said.
Kees said he didn’t know about the original cases until an attorney contacted him last year.
He said he didn’t pay much attention to the news, especially when the first cases were filed, and he suspects many of the new plaintiffs were similar to him. But, it shouldn’t matter, Kees said.
“There’s an element of fairness and what’s right and just because we weren’t first in line doesn’t make us any less deserving than anyone else that has filed a motion. It’s almost offensive because that was a devastating day in all of our lives,” Kees said.
Kees fondly recalls spending time with his father growing up in West Virginia. His parents were divorced, but he spent weekends with his dad.
“I used to love Fridays because I could come home from the bus knowing I was going to see dad,” he said.
He talked about tossing a football around with his dad, going to work with him, eating and just hanging out – something he values doing with his own son – 10-year-old Jake when he arrives home from school.
Jake said his father talks to him a lot about his grandfather.
“I know he was a lot like him (John Kees) and he was in the war and protected our country,” Jake said. “Sometimes my dad will show me pictures of him (Marion Kees) when he was in high school and in a passport office.”
Like his father, John Kees ended up in the medical field, first as a nurse and now as a hospital infection consultant. Hanging on a wall across from his garage door is a shadow box with a picture of Marion Kees, the Purple Heart he received and other medals. There’s also the flag that was draped over his casket.
“It’s the first thing I look at when I come in from the garage every day,” Kees said.
Going through old newspaper clippings on the bombing, Kees comes across an article on the arrival of his dad’s body at Dover Air Force Base. Another one has a photo of Kees at his dad’s funeral, holding a folded flag, with his grandmother sitting beside him.
“I always envied my friends that had a mom and dad. I was always searching for that father figure, you know someone to fill that void and it was rough through pre-adolescence and adolescence,” he said.
But he did have his dad’s parting words in that last letter to him, which he knows almost by heart. It said, “Report cards should be out soon, so don’t forget to let me know what you got. I know you’ll do real well. I guess I’ll close for now. I’ll write again soon. Until then, listen to mommy, say your prayers and take real good care of grand-mom and grand-daddy until I get home. Remember I miss and love you very much, daddy.”