For Operations Specialist 1st Class Greg Carlson, the lazy way the Afloat Training Group rep was delivering the force protection training brief was just too much to bear.
It was the spring of 2002, a little more than a year since he'd lost 17 of his shipmates aboard the destroyer Cole in Aden, Yemen, a terror attack that shocked the nation and caused the Navy to change how it protected its ships overseas. And sitting in the combat information center of the cruiser Leyte Gulf, Carlson just wasn't going to put up with half-hearted ATFP training.
"He just wasn't into it — I could tell he didn't care, that he wasn't motivated," said Carlson, now 42 and the command master chief aboard the cruiser Normandy, in a telephone interview. "And I just got mad, I thought, 'You're not taking this seriously; I know what it's like to duct-tape an American flag to a body bag."
Carlson and the members of the 2000 Cole crew were all given placards forged from steel removed from the blast site. Each had the ship's motto, "Glory is the Reward of Valor," along with the date of the bombing engraved on it. His was taped up inside the Leyte Gulf's combat information center over the digital dead reckoning trace as a reminder to his shipmates of the threat they faced.
"I went over to the DDRT, ripped it down and gave it to him," Carlson recalled. "I said, 'You have no idea how important your job is right now.' … He held on to it, walked off the ship with it. I haven't seen him since, but I hope it made an impression. I think I made my point."
To most of the country, the true meaning of the attack on Cole wouldn't become apparent until Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists from the same group that struck DDG-67 flew planes into the World Trade Center in New York City, a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon. But to the crew that deployed with Cole in the fall of 2000, the war started on Oct. 12, 2000. For many, the fight to heal — while still remembering their shipmates who passed — continues today.
In the aftermath of the attack, the crew had to remain on the ship for three weeks in stifling hot weather, sleeping on deck since there was no ventilation or air conditioning inside the skin of the ship. And for the crew, being constantly surrounded by the crime scene had a negative effect.
Even as President Bill Clinton eulogized the dead at a ceremony in Norfolk Oct. 18, the crew was locked in a protracted battle to save the ship from sinking — a battle that would decide whether Cole would live to fight another day.
"Being surrounded by that … that death and that tragedy, was not a healthy thing," Carlson said. "It was hard thing. So when we were inside — no light, no ventilation — it turned that ship into an oven. All the perishable stuff starts to smell."
"I really want to think that was the majority of the odor was the food going over — there was lots of food down there. But it wasn't just the smell of food."
When the crew finally departed the ship, they were flown almost directly back to the United States, an abrupt contrast that was jarring, Carlson said.
"Just hours after leaving this horrific tragedy, that decompression time you usually get coming back from a deployment, we didn't have that," he said. "I remember just sort of sitting in the car, feeling uncomfortable and thinking, 'What the hell just happened?' "
A Navy honor guard from the destroyer Cole practices rendering colors before a 2009 memorial service at the USS Cole Memorial at Naval Station Norfolk, Va. "The main thing to remember is the sacrifice made by our fellow sailors on Cole,” said the ship's former command master sergeant. “Those 17 that died that day should not be forgotten." (Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Julie Matyascik/Navy)
Carlson, who seems almost permanently upbeat at his job, credits his wife and his faith with helping him heal from wounds sustained on Cole. But he still can't abide lazy damage control or force protection training.
"I don't do it as much as I used to, but I still do it," he said. "I try to use my experiences on Cole as a teachable moment to tell our sailors that, "Shipmate, what we're doing here saves lives.' "
For others, the trauma suffered on Cole is never far from the surface. Capt. Chris Peterschmidt, who was Cole's executive officer and whose decisions following the blast saved the ship, has spent the past decade-and-a-half trying to find a way to cope with the trauma while pressing on with his Navy career — to give the Navy, in his words, what he has left to give.
"The experience, the enormity of what I saw, whenever I go back to think about what happened, I start to replay everything as if it's in real time," he said. "I think, OK this time if I go left, instead of right, or help this person instead of that person, maybe the outcome would change. That adrenaline and intensity — it's as if no time has passed."
Much of the crew of Cole endured symptoms of post-traumatic stress, but at the time of the bombing, there wasn't the kind of deep understanding of the condition inside the military as there is today, Peterschmidt said.
"In 2000, you were given medication for sleeping and that was about it — all of us were having trouble sleeping following the bombing," he said. "And the psychologists they sent to the ship were really there to get the crew reorganized."
But getting the ship back to a normal schedule was what the crew needed to feel like sailors again, and less like survivors of a terrorist attack, he said.
"A few days after the bombing [the psychologist] told me to publish the [plan of the day]," Peterschmidt recalled. "We had one functional computer, so I got on, scheduled quarters, early chow for watch relief, sweepers — a normal work day.
"And as soon as I posted the POD, the stress level in the crew started to come down. They started shaving again, returning to normal life. And all the sudden we realized that, 'Yeah, we got through this, and we can get through this.'"
After extensive repairs, the Cole returned to the fleet in 2002. (Photo: MC1 Julie Matyascik/Navy)
But in the years following the bombing, things started getting flaky for Peterschmidt, now 50, and for many of the Cole's sailors. Peterschmidt described his behavior as withdrawn, not wanting to talk about what happened, and he didn't want to be around other people.
"Unlike physical injuries, post-traumatic stress doesn’t heal over time," he said. "It tends to build over time if you don’t get the help you need."
For Peterschmidt, currently assigned to the Undersea Warfighting Development Center in San Diego, healing began when he starting seeking that help, particularly after connected with a group of young Marines in the summer of 2012 — veterans of the fierce fighting in Fallujah.
"I was the only officer in this group and all of us are on active duty," he recalled. "It took a while for them to relax around me and me to relax around them, but the more we met and talked, rank started to go out the window. Hearing what other people were going through: alcohol, desire to be alone, you know. Hearing these as a common symptom, it was really helpful for me."
Much of the crew stays connected via Facebook, a private page where the crew goes to keep in touch, offer support when it's needed.
James Parlier, the retired corpsman who was command master chief of Cole that day, finds himself permanently assigned to the 2000 crew, staying in touch with about three-quarters of his shipmates and the families of the fallen, listening to their struggles and their successes in dealing with the pain of loss.
"They still call me 'Master Chief,' " he said. "I've been out for almost 10 years now, I try to tell them to call me James, but they won't."
The Cole has dominated his life for the past 15 years. Like many in the crew, the trauma of the event made him withdrawn and difficult to be around. Like many in the crew, Parlier paid for it with his marriage.
In the following years, he has made a practice of going down to Guantanamo Bay, more than a dozen times, to attend the court appearances of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashir, the Saudi-born accused mastermind of the attack.
“We don’t want to let it go, we want to be able to sit in that gallery and look at the bad guy — the evil guy — and let him know that this isn’t going to be forgotten,” Parlier said. “That justice does need to be done, whether that’s life or death. Because if we don’t sit in that gallery — let the judge, the prosecution, the media know that this is not going to be forgotten — it will be.”
For Parlier, who is now 58, remarried and attending nursing school, the 15-year anniversary of the attack is a chance to remember the fallen. He hopes the rest of the country will as well.
"The main thing to remember is the sacrifice made by our fellow sailors on Cole,” he said. “Those 17 that died that day should not be forgotten."
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