Gerry Campbell could have served his three tours in the Navy without ever seeing combat.
He was assigned as an E-5 petty officer to a supply ship that cruised throughout the Mediterranean, where Campbell and his fellow officers explored cities like Naples, Pompeii, Barcelona, Rome and Sicily — places he never would have seen if he hadn’t joined the Navy, he said.
But in 1983, the ship Campbell was serving on, the USS Sylvania, was off the coast of Lebanon, where fighting had broken out during the Lebanese Civil War, including the Beruit barracks bombing that October.
The Sylvania was alongside the USS Fort Snelling doing underway replenishment when the latter rammed another ship that refused to get out of the way.
“It was crazy, gunfire everywhere, men coming onto the ship, and I was right there,” Campbell said, grinning wide. “We became their first responders.”
Campbell, now 68 and a resident of Brigantine, wore a short-sleeve shirt and jeans as he leaned back in his seat at his desk at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center, where he started working shortly after finishing five years of service in the Navy.
Pictures of him on the Sylvania and landmarks and city buildings of the places he visited in the service were scattered on his desk. He held up a wooden plaque made by his friends and fellow servicemen containing his medal of service pinned to the center with coordinates for Beruit.
“I gotta say, being in the service really does change you,” he said.
Campbell grew up in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. He married young, and the couple had a daughter before getting a divorce in 1976. Finding it hard to make money at the time and support an ex-wife and child, Campbell joined the Navy at 28.
“I remember at one point, we went a little bit more out to sea and came across Russian ships with their helicopters flying in between. We got some rocks, stood on the flight deck and threw them up at the Russian helicopters,” he said while laughing.
On Veterans Day, Campbell plans to meet up with his friend, a fellow veteran, and that friend’s daughter, also a veteran. He still stays in touch with others who served on the Sylvania with him.
Nowadays, he spends time with his family, which includes grandchildren, and works on graphic novels and illustrated story books that can be read by children and adults alike. But he’ll never forget the many good memories and fun he had while being part of the Navy.
“Something really did occur while I was over there,” he said, looking up at some of the towers at the tech center. “I really would have given my life.”