A front page caption in some editions yesterday incorrectly said Sean Luketina died during the Grenada invasion last October. He died in June of wounds suffered during the invaision.
At a White House ceremony heavy with campaign overtones, President Reagan yesterday celebrated the invasion of Grenada a year ago today as "an anniversary of honor for America" that demonstrated "the meaning of peace through strength."
Speaking in the East Room to an applauding audience of medical students who were taken off Grenada by U.S. troops, Reagan said the operation marked a turning point in U.S. foreign policy away from the "self-doubt and national confusion" of the Carter administration.
Only once during the day did Reagan mention another recent anniversary, the Oct. 23 suicide bombing of the Marine headquarters in Beirut where 241 U.S. servicemen were killed after a deployment that was highly controversial within U.S. military circles. These dead servicemen, Reagan said, "were heroes every bit as much in their peace-keeping mission as were our soldiers in their rescue mission in Grenada."
The White House ceremony capped a day of Grenada anniversary activities featuring 89 of the 600 medical students at the University of St. George's who were taken off the tiny Caribbean island by American troops after leftists deposed the government in a coup. A year later, the tropical island has begun a slow return to prerevolutionary days, with an election set for Dec. 3.
The students laid a wreath in Arlington National Cemetery at the grave of one of the servicemen who died during the military action and presented plaques of appreciation to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps at a Capitol Hill "Grenada Liberation Day" luncheon.
Today these students, many of them ardent supporters of Reagan's reelection, will fan out across the country to describe at different colleges their recollections of the Grenada operation.
The trip is sponsored by two foundations with ties to Republicans, and Reagan campaign officials see the students' mission as part of an effort to reinforce Reagan's leadership image in the closing days of the campaign.
White House aides said yesterday's White House event was nonpartisan, but Reagan, in a speech earlier in the day at Ohio State University, made Grenada the symbol of his foreign policy differences with Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale.
"One year ago we liberated Grenada from Communist thugs who had taken over" the island, Reagan said. "My opponent called what we did a violation of international law that erodes our moral authority to criticize the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan . . . .
"Mr. Mondale said in Sunday's debate of a possible attack on this country, 'Pick a president that you know will know, if that tragic moment ever comes, what he must know because there'll be no time for staffing or committees or advisers.' Well, it took him 11 months to decide that rescuing our sons and daughters in Grenada was a good thing," Reagan said.
Yesterday, in Milwaukee, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger used Grenada as a launching pad to boost U.S. foreign policy, describing the operation as a "genuinely successful and necessary enterprise."
Amidst the administration's chorus of self-congratulation, a few voices were raised in dissent. Organizers of a "National Student Peace Day" denounced the invasion and said today's anniversary would be met with protests instead of praise at many college campuses.
Van Gosse, one of the coordinators of the activities, called the U.S. intervention "a trumped up rescue mission, . . . a longing to win one for the Gipper at all cost, even the truth."
But Reagan won cheers and a few tears in the East Room when he told the story of the "19 brave men who died during the Grenada rescue, serving their country and the cause of freedom."
Reagan told the story of one of these men, Sean Luketina, whose father attended the White House ceremony. Luketina, a paratrooper, was seriously wounded by a rocket and evacuated to Puerto Rico, where his father, Robin, a retired military officer, was at his bedside.
The president quoted the father as asking the son, "Sean, was it worth it?"
He answered affirmatively and the father said, "Would you do it again?"
"Hell, yes, Dad," Reagan quoted the son as replying.
Luketina died of his wounds in June, becoming the 19th fatality of an operation in which 115 U.S. servicemen also were wounded.
The story and Reagan's conclusion that "America is the land of the free because we're the home of the brave" brought an emotional response from the students, who cheered him and crowded around to shake his hand and ask for autographs when the ceremony ended.
The students presented Reagan was a plaque and a replica of the memorial to the U.S. servicemen that will be built at the reconstructed university.
"President Reagan, you came to our aid when our freedom was in jeopardy," said Jeffrey Geller, a U.S. student who kissed the ground a year ago after returning to the United States. "You made us proud to be Americans. On behalf of the students assembled here today, I'd like to thank you and all four branches of the armed forces for being there when we needed you."
The medical students, now completing their studies in Barbados, were flown to Washington for the commemorative events here.
The Oct. 24-25 activities are being coordinated by the USA Foundation and the American Opportunity Foundation, tax-exempt groups with ties to conservative contributors. The College Republican National Committee, the Republican National Committee's youth affiliate, has been working with the groups to arrange campus appearances by the medical students.
These political connections -- and the campaign advantages of holding such ceremonies so close to Election Day -- were played down yesterday by the medical students.
"I'm not political . . . not then, not now," said Robert Kelemen, 22, of Rego Park, N.Y. "It's just very coincidental that this happens to be happening in the month before the election."
Kelemen said he won't be voting Nov. 6 because he hadn't arranged to get an absentee ballot.
Recalling events a year ago, when he said he found himself confined to campus under a "shoot-on-sight curfew", Kelemen said he felt he was in danger and was grateful when he and other students were flown off the island.
"When you have to sit home and wonder what's going to happen in the country, something's wrong," he said.
Atilla Akturk, 23, of Pompton Lakes, N.J., echoed Kelemen's view that the medical students had been in danger. He said he had been frustrated returning home after his rescue and hearing Reagan criticized for the military action.
"But when we came off the plane, they told us not to talk to the press," Akturk said. "I know very little about politics. All I know is what the end result was: I got to get home."
Akturk, a Turkish native who has applied for U.S. citizenship, said he would vote for Reagan if he could.
At the luncheon honoring the various military branches that participated in the Grenada action, Langhorne A. (Tony) Motley, assistant secretary for inter-American affairs, also praised the students, saying they had acted with maturity under stress.
At another Capitol Hill news conference yesterday, however, other young people had a different view of what happened on Grenada -- and of what most American students think about it.
"The invasion of Grenada and the overall course of Reagan administration foreign policy are widely opposed by college students throughout the country," said a statement issued by a coalition of student and youth groups that are organizing rallies to counter those planned by students who support the invasion.
Organizers of National Student Peace Day said that despite an infusion of money and staff help to College Republicans on campus, the Republican National Committee and its supporters "have been unable to generate bona fide student support" for the Grenada action.
Kathy Shulman, 24, of Youth for Democratic Action, and Gosse, 23, of the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, two of the groups included in the peace day coalition, said their supporters, in contrast, would be holding rallies, teach-ins and other educational events at more than 75 campuses.
"Students want peace, not invasions," Shulman said. "Grenada was a tragedy, not a sports event."