CAMP VIRGINIA, Kuwait -- On Oct. 12, 2000, aboard the listing, grey metal hulk of the USS Cole, Navy Petty Officer Second Class Timothy Lamont Saunders, from Ringold, Va., clung to the tattered shreds of his young and promising life. Moments prior, Saunders and his shipmates were rocked by an act of terror when their ship – home to some 320 Sailors – was punctured by an explosion that left a 40 foot by 60 foot opening in the port bow of the Cole. In the flooding and flames, chaos and death, Saunders’ good friend, Gregory Powe, found him alive.
Navy Petty Officer First Class Powe, like Saunders, was an operations specialist serving aboard the USS Cole when, on the way to a port visit in Baharain, the ship stopped in the Port of Aden, Yemen, at a year-old Defense Fuel Support Point. Amongst the other small vessels buzzing around the harbor like flies, a small rubber craft piloted by two men separated from the rest and pulled alongside the Cole. According to witnesses, the men rose to their feet, came to attention, and detonated an unknown amount of explosives. The blast crippled the ship, killing 17 service members and injuring another 39.
The Cole is a 505-foot Arleigh Burke Class “Aegis” (air defense) destroyer that returned to battle with the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group this past June, serving alongside Marines and Sailors of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable). During its latest voyage, the destroyer has continually provided tactical support for other ships in the strike group, including its role as protector during the assisted departure of American citizens from Beirut in July. Today, a full six years since the Cole was attacked, it sails again. But, hidden beneath the nearly $106 million in repairs and layers of gunmetal paint lies a humble memorial to the sailors whose lives were taken that October morning. And for those who’ve returned to war in their stead -- men like Gregory Powe -- their own memorial lies beneath the scars that cover memories of their shipmates and friends.
Powe, who hails from Detroit, Mich., had just completed navigation detail the day of the blast and was asleep and dreaming when he heard “a loud explosion,” and woke to a nightmare of blocked passageways and a confused ship.
“I had no sense of time, I don’t know how long I was down there,” explained Powe, who helped administer CPR to his fallen comrades. “I had a lot of adrenaline pumping. There was no time to be scared.”
For Navy Lt. Michael O. Russell, now the battalion naval gunfire liaison officer, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 24th MEU, the explosion on the Cole jumped straight from the silver screen and into his reality. Russell, a prior enlisted Sailor from Colombus, Miss., was serving as the Chief Quartermaster aboard the Cole in October 2000 and was eating breakfast while watching Mission Impossible II on a ship’s television.
“I never heard anything, it was all a part of the movie to me,” said Russell who was 35 feet away from the epicenter and suffered a head injury from flying debris. “I didn’t know if I was unconscious or what. I couldn’t see anything. Everything went dark and there was heavy black smoke everywhere.”
Russell said he escaped from the horrors below decks and found his way topside, where he helped care for the injured and control the damage. He would later be evacuated to a local hospital and eventually to the Army’s Landsthul Regional Medical Center near Ramstein, Germany, for further treatment before returning home.
In another part of the ship, Powe and four of his shipmates were carrying Timothy Saunders to safety and trying to save his life. “When the four of us took him off, he was still alive,” said Powe. “I thought he was gonna’ make it - he was responding when I talked to him. I thought that he was going to be alright.”
In the aftermath of the attack, in the heat of a foreign land, Powe would learn Saunders had succumbed to his internal injuries, one of 17 to be taken that day.
In the aftermath, Powe and the other survivors of the attack would live lives of valor under dire circumstances – residing next to one another above decks on coarse, woolen blankets, their bodies becoming blackened by soot from still-burning fires. They worked together to save the Cole and prepare the ship for repairs, preserving the battleship for another round of fighting in the Global War on Terrorism.
Today, the USS Cole is taking the fight to the enemies of freedom. Like an aging prize fighter, the Cole has absorbed its share of punches but remains on its feet and in the ring, a source of pride to the Sailors and Marines that make up the strike group, said Powe, who now serves aboard the USS Iwo Jima.
“I’m proud of the Cole. I’m proud of bringing it back to life and I’m proud of the training that kept it from sinking,” said Powe. “Even though 17 were lost, it felt like we saved more because of the training that we have.”
“It’s just an extension of that fact that we’re not going to quit,” said Russell, who is also currently serving aboard the Iwo Jima. “We’ll rebuild and we’ll be back. We’ll come back with a bigger punch, too.”