Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Brief History of the Tripoli Project

A Brief History of the Tripoli Project

The Tripoli Project officially came into being shortly after the Arab Spring revolutions reached Libya in February, 2011, when the turmoil in the region suggested that a new effort to repatriate the remains of Richard Somers and the men of the Intrepid could be successful.

Where other, similar efforts in the past failed, the Tripoli Project has come closer than ever before of obtaining the repatriation of the remains of the American Naval heroes from Tripoli, but it too is fighting the Pentagon’s outdated policies.

The brainchild of Michael Caputo, a Florida based public relations specialist, Caputo convinced the effort so far advanced by the Somers’ family and the citizens and officials of Somers Point, New Jersey, had to be expanded to include the families of the others as well as national veterans groups and Congress. 

Caputo first came to Somers Point, the home of Intrepid Captain Richard Somers, representing a century’s old major building and construction firm that was chosen by the city to develop the hospital garage and other projects. The Republican mayor Dan Reilly and city council had already endorsed the repatriation effort and wrote letters to the State Dept., Congress and the Libyans, but Caputo would shift that effort into high gear.

Caputo hired a Libyan lawyer/lobbyist who made contact with the Gadhafi Charities Foundation, that made the multi-million dollar payoffs to the victims of the Lockerbe terrorist attack. He also began to negotiate with Dr. Anag, the director of Libyan antiquities whose office is in the old castle fort that overlooks Green Square. After the success of the Feb. 17th revolution it was renamed Martyr’s Square, but the only real martyrs buried there are those of the American navy heroes.

While the Gadhafi family had no qualms about repatriation, the US military did, so Caputo further explored the private repatriation through his lobbyist, who one day reported that some Libyans had excavated a mass grave with buttons and bones. Caputo said they were relieved when told them they had been buried by US navy men from the captured frigate USS Philadelphia, but then they recovered them.

The international situation flared up at the time and the Libyans broke off contact with Caputo, who announced in an Atlantic City Press newspaper article that they had gone as far as they could and were going no further at that point in time, and the remained of the funds were returned to the anonymous benefactor and the effort ended.

Then with the Arab Spring revolutions and unrest in Libya a new effort was launched and Caputo helped organize it. This new campaign began with a new internet petition, a web site and a trip to Washington DC to lobby Congress. I was invited to go on the trip in June, 2011, which was led by Somers Point Mayor Jack Glasser and included Dean Somers of the Somers’ extended family, Somers Point Planning Board member Greg Sykora, Walt Gregory of the Somers Point Business Association, Sally Hastings – president of the Somers Point Historical Society and a veteran who is making a documentary film of the repatriation effort.

Jack Glasser, an Air Force veteran of many years, is the best mayor Somers Point has had in a long time. A no-nonsense guy with fortitude and good sense, he is committed to the repatriation of Somers.

Walt Gregory first got me interested in the subject in the early 1990s when he asked me to write a cover-story article on Somers for the Somers Point Business Association tabloid. Greg Sykora had asked me to address the SPBA one day over a decade later, which I did at a breakfast meeting at the Greate Bay Country Club, where I stressed the economic and tourists benefits the city and entire area would get with the repatriation.

Dean Somers, a Somers Point native, had only recently learned that he was related to the same branch of the family as Richard Somers and was learning more every day about the history and the previous, failed repatriation attempts.

In Washington, we first met with Michael Caputo and Annapolis, Maryland historian Chipp Reid at a Congressional cafeteria, before being escorted to the office of our representative Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R. NJ). Frank has always been a big supporter of Somers Point and repatriation, and always gives a speech on the annual Richard Somers Day event.

LoBiondo explained that he was a member of the House Intelligence Committee wh.ose chairman Mike Rogers (R. Mich) supported the repatriation efforts and was recruited to help. Shortly thereafter, Rogers himself showed up at LoBiondo’s office and invited us over to his office where he explained how he was an Army veteran who had been to the Tripoli graves and was going to introduce a bill in Congress that calls for the repatriation. He also introduced us to his chief military aide, an Army Reserve officer who did all the hard work to make it happen.

After the meeting in Congress, we got into the van and proceeded to the other side of town to the offices of the American Legion. Sitting around the table in their board room, we took turns telling the national commander of the Legion and his aides, what we were trying to do and why they should support repatriation. When it was my turn, I told them a previous effort that failed was sparked by an article in the American Legion magazine by two women from New Jersey who stumbled across the neglected graves at Old Protestant Cemetery and commented on their sad state. That effort led to the formation of a committee, a petition and Congressional resolution and went no where. But they tried.

The Legion decided to help us, and at their next national convention approved a resolution calling for the repatriation of the Tripoli heroes and they made an excellent documentary film that was presented on their web site to over 2 million veterans.

One of the veterans who saw the video, A. J. Castella, from Massachusetts, immediately contacted his Senators and made appointments to meet with them personally, did so, and got them to support the Rogers/LoBiondo bill in the Senate.

The Maine family of Captain Richard Somers’ second officer Henry Wadsworth, contacted by Caputo, also began to lend their support to the effort, and the Senators from Maine also voiced support for repatriation.

Then, in a master-stroke of political machinations, Rep. Rogers pulled a fast one, and rather than get hundreds of co-sponsors on his bill and pass it through the House and Senate, he attached the repatriation bill to the 2012 Defense Authorization Act as an amendment.

While hundreds of other amendments were also attached to the DAA, when it came down to the joint House-Senate Armed Services Committee sub-committee to hash out the details, LoBiondo sat on the committee, and when it got to the Tripoli Amendment, Rogers himself made an appearance and was given five minutes to make his case, which he effectively did.

Meanwhile, the Congressional liaison officers at the Pentagon were taken by surprise, and in an attempt to scuttle the amendment, had one of their biggest supporters in Congress – Sen. John McCain pull the amendment. McCain said he didn’t know what it was all about, and seemed to be just following orders.

Now it was Frank LoBiondo’s turn, and if the amendment was going to be pulled by McCain without giving adequate reason, he was going to replace it with an order to have a study conducted on the feasibility of repatriation of the Tripoli remains. That study was ordered in six months after the passage of the act, or by October, 2012. 

That study, recently released and posted at the Intrepid Project web site [see: ] reiterates all of the problems and objections to repatriation of the Tripoli remains, but does not address the most significant issue.

In the months since the ordering of the study, the success of the revolution not only changed the name of Green Square to Martyrs Square, but also led to the dissolution of the Libyan army and civil authority, so gangs of militias now controlled different neighborhoods. In addition, radical Islamic extremists, while only a small percentage of the total population, were armed and violent and desecrated the graves of British soldiers at Tobrok and robbed the graves of Sufi saints from their graves under the floors of Tripoli mosques. They also led an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including two former Navy SEALS and US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Since the clearly marked graves of American Navy heroes in the cemetery, if these extremists knew were there, would be immediately targeted, the grave markers desecrated and the remains destroyed, its quite clear these remains are not safe.

The US State Department has recommended that the Old Protestant Cemetery be named a protected United Nations historical site, but similar sites, such as those in Syria, have been destroyed in the Civil War and turmoil sparked by the Arab Spring revolts, and the American graves in Tripoli are now threatened by the same forces. \

Who will get there first? Will American forensic archeologists retrieve the remains of these heroes, attempt to positively identify them and return them home for proper burial with full military honors – or will Arab extremists knock over the marked crypts and throw the remaining bones to the desert dogs?

It is only a matter of time before one or the other happens.

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