Robert Stethem: An Unbreakable Spirit

By: Julius Lacano

Historian, US Navy Seabee Museum

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SW2 Robert Stethem

Among the hundreds of thousands of men and women that have served in the Seabees, there are two men who have become legends due to their courage, personal valor, and devotion to duty. Marvin Shields and Robert Stethem came from very different backgrounds, but each gave their lives for this nation. This is the second installment of a two-part series and discusses Robert Stethem.

Unlike Marvin Shields, Robert Dean Stethem came from a military family. Both of his parents and two of his brothers, including one who was also a Seabee diver, all served in the U.S. Navy.  After graduating basic training and follow on training, Stethem was assigned to NMCB 62 in Gulfport, Mississippi, as a Steelworker.  After several deployments to Guam and Diego Garcia, Stethem attended Navy dive school, becoming a Second Class Diver, and was assigned to Underwater Construction Team One (UCT 1), in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

On June 14, 1985, Stethem and five other members of UCT 1 Detachment November Mike ’85 were flying home after completing an assignment at the Naval Communication Station, Nea Maki, Greece onboard TWA flight #847.  The flight was hijacked shortly after take-off from Athens, Greece by Lebanese nationals alleged to have been members of the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah.  The men demanded: the release of 766 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by Israel; 17 members of the Iraqi Shiite group Da’wa responsible for the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait; and, a condemnation of the United States and Israel by the international community.  Infuriated when their demands were not met, the men began threatening and attacking the crew and passengers.  While the other members of his unit were regularly beaten, Stethem was singled out and subjected to brutal beatings and torture.  Through the ordeal he remained silent and steadfast which only angered the terrorists more. Upon landing in Beirut, Lebanon, which was in the middle of a sectarian civil war, Stethem was shot in the temple, had his lifeless body thrown down onto the tarmac, and then was shot again.

 

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Secretary of the Navy, the Hon. Ray Mabus, posthumously awards the Prisoner of War Medal to Robert Stethem in 2009

For his actions while held captive, Robert Dean Stethem was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Prisoner of War Medal.  He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery Section 59, Grave 430, near others who were victims of International terror.  In 2010, Stethem also was named an honorary Master Chief Constructionman by the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy onboard the Arleigh Burke-Class Guided Missile Destroyer USS Stethem (DDG-63), which was named in his honor.

While Marvin Shields and Robert Stethem came from very different backgrounds, grew up on opposite coasts, and served at different times, they exemplified the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.  Their actions will not be easily forgotten by those that knew them and Seabees that came after them.  Today they serve as reminders of conduct before the enemy, and represent the willingness of those who preserve this nation to give all in its defense.

Discover more at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

What is Hezbollah?

What class of ship is the USS Stethem (DDG-63)?

What is the motto of the USS Stethem (DDG-63)?

 

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