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Ten years later, local USS Cole survivor reflects on healing

Editor's note: It has been a decade since the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen during a routine stop to refuel. Erin Long, a San Diego resident since 2001, is a survivor of that terrifying day and recently returned from a reunion in Norfolk, Va., to commemorate the 10-year anniversary. Although she has never spoken to a member of the press, let alone told her story in such great detail, she agreed to speak to the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News. Over three hours of conversation will appear as a two-part story, in which Erin will share her memories about that fateful day, its aftermath, the impact it's had on her life, and how she finds comfort in her relationships with the other survivors. This is the second of the two-part series.

SAN DIEGO -- Oct. 30, 2000: the 24 hours the crew spent at Ramstein AFB, Germany, before boarding a chartered plane back to the United States, gave them a buffer from the surreal existence they just experienced, to arguably, the even more surreal existence waiting for them back home.

Erin's parents were there to greet her when the long flight finally touched down in Norfolk, Va.

Adjusting to her new reality and time zone would take some time, but one of the first ways she decided to help re-acclimate herself, was to hit up Taco Bell. "I just wanted something other than field food," she said.

The Navy had awarded the crew 30 days of "basket leave" (free vacation time), so after a few days rest in her parents' nearby hotel, she headed down to her hometown of Cartersville, Ga., just north of Atlanta, to decompress for a while.

"When I was in Georgia, some of my friends threw me a 'welcome home/glad you're alive' party," she said, "which was nice."

By this time, the crippled Cole was well on its way to the United States, carried on the back of the mighty Norweigan, semi-submersible heavy-lift ship, the MV Blue Marlin. Total transit time from Aden to the Litton-Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., would be 44 days, from Oct. 3 to Dec. 13.

While on leave, Erin got word that a team consisting of ship's company was needed to travel to Pascagoula to meet, secure and square away the ship prior to overhaul. She didn't hesitate to volunteer as part of the team.

After all, she remembers thinking, she had no husband, no wife, no children to be concerned with, no significant other at the time; and she had just spent several weeks with her friends and family. It was a no-brainer for her to volunteer and allow other crew members to spend the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with their loved ones.

Besides, it was something to do.

Erin (and her crew of about 20) spent 30 days in Pascagoula, cleaning up ship spaces, packing up and labeling the personal effects of crew members and sending anything left behind and not welded down, back to Norfolk. Unauthorized items couldn't be shipped back, so as a result, they tossed out a great deal of contraband (forbidden items), and probably got to know a few things about their shipmates that they didn't really care to, but it had to be done. Everything had to go before the repair period began.

Even after over a month of traveling across the open ocean, the ship still smelled of fuel and smoke. It certainly wasn't a glamorous job, but being back onboard and doing something with purpose for her crew during that time, helped keep her mind off of things.

"I tried to keep things on the lighter side with the other people that were there, so we could get the job done. We kept ourselves busy and kept to each other, and didn't really interact with anyone that wasn't our crew, you know?

"I knew everything that had happened, but I still hadn't registered it all in my mind," she said. "It was somewhat uncomfortable, because I had to walk back and forth past where I was when the explosion happened." She also admitted that walking through those spaces or even around on the port side of the ship made her skin crawl and often gave her goose bumps.

But just like the day of the bombing, she had to "flip a switch," and do the job required of her.

Once back in Norfolk, she kicked around her future plans. Her contract was up in May and the one thing she knew was that she didn't want to stay in Norfolk. Ironically, she had not been offered any psychological evaluation or assistance, and hadn't since returning from Yemen. This was a surprising fact.

Back in the trenches

Time passed and she had to make a decision about her career. Instead of re-enlisting, she requested and received an extension to her contract, and accepted orders she was offered to San Diego in return; but she did so before really considering the outcome or having any career or personal counseling beforehand. However, San Diego sounded full of promise and she was eager to go.

Her new orders took her to the Uss Higgins (DDG-76) which was currently located at the NASSCO Shipyard, next to Naval Base San Diego (also known as "32nd Street").

The Higgins was also an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer, just like the Cole, which meant every space, every bulkhead, every nook and cranny of this new ship was in the exact same location as her previous ship, the USS Cole.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a good thing for a new arrival - allowing a lot less time to get acclimated - since you already know where everything is and won't spend weeks becoming familiar with your new ship.

For Erin, however, this was anything but a good thing. "I could barely stand in the mess line," she recalled.

In addition, daily working conditions were definitely not optimal for someone who was trying to move on from such a horrific event.

Anyone who has ever spent any time at all on a Navy ship in dry-dock, knows how maddening the sights, sounds and conditions can be. Hard-hat status at all times; blocked passageways; constant loud bangings; sudden, unexpected crashes of dropped equipment; the unnerving and high-pitched scream of metal on metal; the hazardous smells and wild sparks of random welding; overly crowded and cramped working spaces; hundreds of extra civilian shipyard workers (not normally part of ship's company) coming and going everywhere; and, quite often, the absolute feeling of little to no control.

It is definitely a full-blown assault on the senses for anyone, much less someone who had survived a murderous explosion at the hands of terrorists, just a few months before.

Basically, all the "shipyard noises" - in every form presented - soon just became too much for Erin.

And while "San Diego" sounded like a well deserved respite from the toils of Norfolk, Erin also began to feel the weight of unexpected isolation and despair. Many of her shipmates had stayed behind in Norfolk and had a support system there, while Erin was having trouble building a new one on the opposite coast.

"There was nothing like Facebook back then," she said, recalling the remoteness of her circumstances.

A decade of recovery

She finally sought help and was soon transferred off of the ship and put into to medical hold for evaluation. Her new assignment was a desk job at RSO, located on the "wet side" at 32nd St, along the piers. They didn't really have much for her to do, there, so she spent her days reflecting, studying and planning her future. Luckily for her, there was a VA rep she got close to who also worked there who personally handled her case.

Eventually they released her to Temporary Disability / Retirement List (TDRL) while she awaited the results of her medical board. During this time she was basically a civilian, going to school and checking in every 18 months for a new evaluation. She remained on medical hold for five long years before finally being officially diagnosed with PTSD, deemed unfit for duty and given a medical discharge in 2006.

What is difficult to grasp is that she wasn't medically retired, she was medically discharged - a very different thing; yet her injuries (PTSD) are what deemed her unfit for duty. Whether they were visual or not, they deserved equal merit and attention, but were not.

And so this is yet another casualty of the Cole bombing; clearly many more than 39 sailors were injured that day, but we will never know just how many. Erin and her Cole shipmates don't talk about their health conditions, their discharges or their VA status. They are all just glad to be alive.

In the years since her discharge, Erin has taken things one day at a time and put one solid foot in front of the other. She chose to remain in San Diego, luckily has a great career, is going to school for electrical engineering, and enjoys spending time with friends.

It was just last year that she finally decided to get on Facebook, and says, "It was the best thing I have ever done."

Soon after joining she found a Cole shipmate, who brought her to other Cole shipmates, and who then introduced her to the Facebook group, The USS Cole Association, named after a non-profit organization started by survivors in 2004, during an informal reunion.

The 393 members of the FB group consist of USS Cole sailors from before, during and after the incident. In fact, there is no other requirement to be a member of this association, than to have served aboard the Cole; not surprisingly, each of the 17 lost are individually listed as "honorary members."

The association's goal is identified as to preserve, maintain and perpetuate the history, tradition and memories of USS COLE (DDG 67), her namesake and all sailors who served aboard, offer them opportunities to socialize, participate in recreational activities, organize reunions (many informal reunions have occurred over the years, sometimes with up to 75-100 attendees), and participate in various patriotic endeavors.

It has gone well above and beyond its goal, most specifically by offering a method for those sailors stationed on the Cole that fateful day in October 2000, a means of reconnecting, sharing their memories, their lives, and supporting each other; and all the while, healing themselves.

Seeing old friends

This past Oct. 9, the weekend prior to the 10th anniversary, the association organized a formal reunion at a Holiday Inn, just outside of Norfolk. There were no jeans or BYOB at this reunion; it was very organized, had speakers and 200 Cole survivors (including their Commanding Officer, CDR Lippold) and family members attended. Erin made the trek from San Diego to Norfolk, as well.

"It was a great party. It was cheerful and very happy - a 'great to be alive' type reunion and it was great to catch up [with everyone there]."

When asked about the Executive Officer's attendance, Erin got very emotional recalling an email she had recently received, with an apology for his absence. In that email, now-Capt Chris Peterschmidt had thanked Erin for being his "right-hand-man" that day, evoking a locker-full of memories that only she and he can explain, and she chose not to.

On the Saturday afternoon before the reunion, Erin and a couple shipmates decided to go see the ship. The Cole is generally open for tours these days, and has made a section of the mess decks a mini-museum.

It was the first time Erin had been to the ship in 10 years.

"It was time. I decided to 'just do it,' and get some closure," she said. "It was like seeing an old friend for the first time in years; still the same, but aged."

The port-to-starboard passageway that doubles as a chow line (and where Erin was standing that day) now has 17 brass stars enlayed into the deck to memorialize those lost.

There is also a plaque with those lost and a trophy case containing three flags: 1) the flag flying on Oct 12, 2000 it still laden with black soot; it was never taken down (not even for colors) until the Cole was brought aboard the Blue Marlin; 2) the flag flown at the ship's recommissioning, April 19, 2002; and 3) a flag flown over Ground Zero, in memory of the lives lost there. Also in the trophy case, marble debris from the twin towers.

On Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010, the Navy had a memorial service to commemorate the 10-year anniversary at the location along Willoughby Bay in Norfolk, where a beautiful memorial has been built to remember those lost. Due to work commitments, Erin was unable to attend the service, but her time in Norfolk in the days before were well spent.

"I [got] more closure and feel stronger now that I have been able to go back and hope that others will do the same, to find peace."

One thing is for sure, she will never forget.

The native San Diegan who perished on the USS Cole

Lakiba Nicole Palmer was a track star at San Diego High School, specializing in hurdles, sprints and long distance relays, when she made the decision to join the U.S. Navy and see the world. A year after her 1996 graduation, she enlisted.

Her first tour was aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) home-ported in Norfolk, Va., during which time she also was married and gave birth to a daughter. In June, 2000, she transferred to the USS Cole, also in Norfolk, just four short months before the ship pulled into Yemen. She was one of the only two female sailors who were killed that day; both were on duty in the ship's mess, serving lunch to their crew at the time of the explosion.

Buried at the legendary Mt. Hope Cemetery in San Diego, Seaman Palmer's friends, family and shipmates have held a memorial service for her each year since the tragedy. This past Oct. 12, on the 10-year anniversary of the bombing, her memorial service was held at the American Legion Post 310, just a few miles from her final resting place.

In 2004, the U.S. Navy dedicated Palmer Hall - a 12 story, energy efficient, state-of-the art barracks at Naval Base, San Diego (32nd Street) - in her honor. The privately owned housing complex is for "ship-board," single, E-1 to E-5 sailors with less than four years of service and is part of the Pacific Beacon complex.

Palmer Hall is the first barracks to be named, not only after a woman, but after an African-American woman, who in her last moment of service, gave up her life for her country.

Some facts relative to the USS Cole

  • The USS Cole (DDG-67) was named after Sergeant Darrell Samuel Cole (July 20, 1920 – February 19, 1945), a United States Marine who posthumously received the Medal of Honor, (highest military decoration of the United States) for his "conspicuous gallantry" at the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.
  • CDR Kirk Lippold, the Commanding Officer on Oct 12, 2000, was selected for Captain in 2002 by a promotions board; however, his selection was never confirmed by the Senate, in large part due to investigator findings that drew conclusions of his actions prior to the bombing. Despite this, he would continue to be board-selected for higher rank up through 2006, but his selection was always squashed by the Senate and Secretary of the Navy. He finally retired from active service in 2007.
  • The events of Oct. 12, 2000, fundamentally changed the way the Navy operates around the world - how it assesses threats in foreign ports, trains recruits and prepares medical personnel for deployments.
  • Every recruit since June of 2007 now goes through a live "final exam" exercise, called Battlestations 21 at the end of their bootcamp training. The 12-hour exercise is conducted in a state-of-the-art, Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyer simulator, called "a ship in a bottle" by the man who first designed it. Many of the hazardous conditions and circumstances of the exercise were derived from the Cole bombing, and retired Cole Command Master Chief James Parlier was involved with developing the training syllabus.

"17 of her crew were lost and remain on duty."

To watch a moving, commemorative video posted on FB by the U.S. Navy on Oct 12, 2010, click here. Note: The 5" / .54 caliber (MK45) gun shown shooting off the port-side bow of the ship (at minute 2:23) is the gun GM2(SW) Erin Long was responsible for during her time on the Cole.

Morgan M. Hurley is the Copy Editor for SDGLN. She spent seven years on active duty in the U.S. Nay and another 15 in the Navy Reserves, retiring as a Chief Petty Officer in 2003. She can be reached at (877) 727-5446, ext 710 or via e-mail at morgan@sdgln.com.