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On Oct. 12, 2000, al Qaeda terrorists perpetrated a cowardly attack against the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyer during a routine refueling stop in Yemen’s port city of Aden. The blast, which tore a 40-by-60 foot hole in the ship’s hull, killed 17 Sailors and injured 37 more.
The Cole crew fought valiantly for more than 96 hours to rescue their shipmates and save their ship under extremely dangerous conditions. I am proud to have led Cole as its commanding officer on its first deployment only three years after the attack. Because it was designed, built, and maintained to be battle-ready, Cole never even missed a beat. Moreover, the ship has deployed six times since, including twice to the Middle East.
On this 20th anniversary, our Navy will pause in places spanning the globe to remember those we lost too soon, pay tribute to the heroic actions of the crew, and reflect on the brave example they set for us all as we face today’s challenges.
Regardless of the source of our beliefs, we all want to know that our lives matter. When faced with senseless tragedy, we look to derive some meaning by using the loss to inspire us to make the world a better or safer place. We strive to pre-vent similar catastrophes from befalling others by stopping the problem at its source.
In the case of the Cole, our first instinct was to seek justice. We sought to prevent the perpetrators from doing evil again and to hold all those responsible to account. What is more, those most affected were jolted into a recognition that the al Qaeda threat was much more serious than commonly understood at the time. So, they endeavored to convince whomever they could to take more substantial action.
But, as our experience with the Cole attack proves, sometimes the circumstances are such that meaningful endings are harder to find. Our pursuit of justice for the Cole crew continues. And, sadly, it took the grievous attack on 9/11 for us to collectively realize that al Qaeda presented a truly consequential threat to America’s security.
While we will never abandon our dogged pursuit of justice for the Cole and will indeed eliminate the last remnants of al Qaeda, definitive outcomes will take time. So, while we resolutely confront this wicked problem, there is meaning in this tragedy.
As soon as I took command of Cole in 2003, I immediately recognized that the meaning resided not elsewhere, but within the Cole crew itself. The meaning from the Cole tragedy lives on through the legacy those heroes created. Their actions epitomized America’s fighting spirit; bravery, toughness, and tenacious resolve to never give up, what though the odds. The Cole heroes grabbed the torch from the likes of their ship’s namesake and carried forward our proud naval heritage of fighting with honor, courage, and commitment.
Now in the role of a fleet commander, I proudly embrace my responsibility to ensure the entire Navy continues to derive meaning from Cole’s sacrifice long into the future. Twenty years later, I am still inspired from my experience on Cole’s return deployment when my crew would respond to the tests we faced with, “We have to do this right, because the 17 would have it no other way.” You can rest assured that the legacy created by not only the 17 fallen Sailors, but the entire crew, lives on throughout the fleet today.
For the citizens of this great nation, know that I see reflections of the Cole heroes in today’s Sailors. This gives me tremendous confidence that the American spirit is alive and well. Finally, and most importantly as we enter a new era of great power competition, any potential adversary to the United States should recognize an obvious message that al Qaeda clearly missed: never underestimate our resolve. The U.S. Navy was undeterred by the attack on Cole. Our actions over the last 20 years prove that. The Cole heroes would have it no other way.
“The meaning from the Cole tragedy lives on through the legacy those heroes created. Their actions epitomized America’s fighting spirit; bravery, toughness, and tenacious resolve to never give up, what though the odds. The Cole heroes grabbed the torch from the likes of their ship’s namesake and carried forward our proud naval heritage of fighting with honor, courage, and commitment.” - Adm. Christopher W. Grady
EDITOR'S NOTE: As a former commanding officer of USS Cole (DDG 67), Adm. Christopher W. Grady led the ship through its first overseas deployment following the Oct. 12, 2000 terrorist attack in Yemen. He is currently the commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, headquartered in Norfolk, Virginia.