The families of the “Intrepid 13” heroes buried in Tripoli, Libya while continuing to demand the Navy return the remains home welcomed the December 17 visit to the graves by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta.
“The families of the crew of the first USS Intrepid are deeply moved by the ’emotional visit’ of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to the squalid graves of their forebears,” according to a joint statement released the same day as Panetta’s visit.
Defense Sec. Leon E. Panetta laid a wreath at the the graves of the “Intrepid 13” at Tripoli, Libya’s Protestant Cemetery during his December 13 meetings with the country’s new leadership. Panetta is the first defense secretary to visit Libya.
Panetta, who placed at memorial wreath at the walled graveyard accompanied by representatives from the new Libyan government and its military said, “I was deeply honored during my visit to Libya to have the opportunity to pay my respects to the heroes from the United States’ first overseas war whose remains are interred in Tripoli’s Protestant cemetery.”
The secretary, who is the first American defense secretary to visit Libya, said the sailors who volunteered to sailed on Intrepid, loaded with explosives, into the Tripoli harbor during the 1804 combat against Barbary Pirates, will never be forgotten.
“These brave sailors from the Intrepid, who died in the service of their country, have our nation’s enduring respect and gratitude,” he said.
“Having sailed into harm’s way to secure our nation’s interests, they volunteered for a dangerous mission and paid the ultimate price. Their courage, and that of their fellow sailors and Marines, have forever emblazoned the shores of Tripoli in our nation’s conscience,” he said.
The Intrepid 13 families came very close to getting their request granted in the Fiscal Year 2012 Defense Department budget with the repatriation included in the House version of the bill. However, when the bill was crafted in the Senate, the GOP floor manager for the bilt, Sen. John S. McCain III, working in concert with the intentions of Navy Chief of Operations Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, declined to bring the measure for a vote.
In addition to their request to bring the remains home, the families have complained that the condition of the cemetery.
Panetta said the cemetery has been brought up to standard.
“Even in the most difficult of times, the Department of Archeology and Antiquities worked hard to protect and preserve this special site, spending significant resources to restore the cemetery to its original state and taking painstaking measures to protect the remains of our fallen sailors,” he said.
“The United States looks forward to working with Dr. Salah Agap and his team to ensure that this very special place remains an honored and protected landmark for both of our nations,” he said.
“The Libyan people’s outstanding work on the cemetery’s restoration is a symbol of the values we share, including an appreciation of the need to honor those who have sacrificed their lives in the pursuit of a cause greater than ourselves,” he said.
The families said they were not satisfied that the cleanup was nothing more than a superficial gesture for Panetta’s photo opportunity.
“Our sources in Tripoli tell us Americans were feverishly working inside the locked cemetery sprucing up the place before he arrived. Reporters who requested access before the cleanup were denied,” they said.
“We respect the need for hyperbolic oratory when our nation is building a new diplomatic relationship. However, it is important to correct Secretary Panetta’s remarks today: the graves of the Intrepid crew were never properly cared for – by Americans or Libyans – and the cemetery was only recently renovated, some of it in preparation for his visit,” they said.
“The Pentagon and the State Department might be able to shore up the collapsed walls of the cemetery, fix grave markers shattered for centuries, and even build new bridges between our nations, but they can never whitewash history,” the said.
“After being dragged through the streets of Tripoli, fed to wild dogs and then dumped in mass graves, the sons of the Intrepid families were never properly honored for their sacrifice.
They are not today,” they said. “The Department of Defense has long ignored the facts surrounding the disposition of the crew of the first Intrepid.”
The Defense Department, led by Navy leadership, has put out the narrative that the Tripoli graveyard is the final resting place, sanctified as such by a 1949 ceremony.
The families said they were frustrated by the twisting of facts.
“In fact, the Pentagon’s own news service got it wrong again today: our heroes remains were not ‘transferred to the current graveyard in 1949,’” they said.
“The cemetery was built up around the existing graves of the Intrepid officers in 1830; the enlisted men were recovered from a mass grave by an Italian road crew and transferred to the grounds in the 1930s. The Pentagon does not have their facts straight and they haven’t for two hundred years,” they said.
“We hope the families’ deep research and abiding concerns will be included in this report. We fear the Secretary’s remarks today and the continued errors in DoD reporting do not indicate they will end 207 years of blocking repatriation,” they said.
“We hope Secretary Panetta’s visit to the graves left neglected for centuries moves him to join our effort to repatriate our nation’s first Navy heroes, honored as they deserve,” they said.
“In many ways, it is now left up to him and boils down to a simple question: will he honor the historical wishes of the Intrepid families to bring them home where they belong?”