NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Two decades after the attack that cost the lives of 17 sailors, the legacy of USS Cole lives on — and Senior Chief Will Merchen has proof.
He was a damage controlman on the Cole on that Oct. 12 in Aden, Yemen, his first deployment. He and his shipmates kept the destroyer afloat after a suicide bomb nearly tore the ship in two.
In February, he was back. Merchen is now an inspector with Afloat Training Group Atlantic, responsible for seeing if sailors are hitting their marks on damage control tasks. In February, his job was to see how the 2020 crew of the Cole was doing.
“I inspect a lot of ships. And I can always tell when I’m looking at the Cole — they’re really on it,” he said. “I know they’re aware of what happened and they are that much more focused.”
He was back again for Monday’s commemoration, joining with old shipmates and the close-knit Gold Star families who gather every year to remember — and to see that the legacy of Oct. 12, 2000, remains alive.
As the ship’s bell tolled for each of the 17 who were lost on the Cole, a sailor from the destroyer’s current ship’s company solemnly read out his or her name and hometown. Behind them, the Cole itself, its crew lined up in dress blues on every deck, snapped a salute. The ship’s rifle squad fired a three-volley salute.
Cmdr. Edward Pledger, current captain of the Cole, told the families and members of the old crew that the 17 golden stars on the bulkhead by the ship’s mess line are kept polished and shining — and continue to inspire his own shipmates today.
“The story of USS Cole is one of remarkable heroism, exceptional toughness and fierce determination,” said Adm. Christopher Grady, currently commander U.S. Fleet Forces Command, but in 2003, the captain who brought a rebuilt Cole back into active duty.
Some of his shipmates that year were sailors who lived through the attack — sailors who insisted on deploying again with the Cole.
He said the way the Cole’s sailors swung into action to rescue shipmates and save their ship should be a reminder: “a lesson that al-Qaida missed: Never underestimate our resolve.”
Remembering sacrifice and resolution was really the point, said retired Adm. Rob Natter, recalling walking the decks of the terribly damaged Cole, and — his voice breaking — how isolated the Cole’s sailors were in that distant port, unsure when or if another attack was coming, as well as how the Navy and the Hampton Roads community rallied round to support sailors and their families.
“Cole answered the call that day. They answered the call to general quarters. They answered to call to duty,” Natter said.
“And after two backbreaking, sweltering weeks, they got Cole underway, sending a clear unmistakable message … she left with her battle ensign flying high and our national anthem blaring … everyone in and around Aden Harbor knew that Cole was coming back,” he said.
©2020 Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)