Seven Years Ago Today …

Seven years ago today, the USS Cole was bombed.

I didn’t realize that until I was on the bus on my way home from work, my iPod earphones tucked in my ears, the day’s paper open in my lap. (It was my first week back, but I’ll write more about that later.) I saw a picture published under the headline “Today in History.”

It was the picture most frequently used when all that happened: the blasted hole in the side of the boat, the green/gray water seeping into it. The year 2000 was typed beside it, and the year looked so foreign to me. Was it really that long ago?

Of course, it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago since I remember everything so clearly because it was just one of those days.

I was 19 years old and at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. I had only been in the Air Force for 10 months, and had only one stripe, meaning I was the newest, most lowest-ranking Airman in my office. I had been there for four months, and during that time, I was moved from section to section as office leadership tried to determine where to put me. For awhile, I had worked on the base newspaper and assisted with tours for the community relations programs, but then I was moved to the media section of the office, where I sat behind a desk and surfed the Internet.

“I want you to keep track on the headlines,” said my new supervisor. “If anything about the Air Force or the base pops up, let me know.”

Even then, I knew this was merely a way to keep me busy and out of anyone’s hair, so I also took it upon myself to organize the office’s media binders, which contained news clippings and “lessons learned’ from past media events that happened at the base. The bulk of my time was spent on those binders, pouring over the details about events like the 1988 air show tragedy that took place there, or the conflict in the Balkans during the 1990s. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was giving myself an education about public relations’ role in a disaster response. I also didn’t realize I would put all that knowledge into action on October 12, 2000.

I was sitting at my desk that day, surfing the Internet for news, when I get an alert on CNN: US ship explodes in Yemen. There wasn’t a photo yet, but I quickly learned it involved the Navy.

Would this count as news?

“A navy ship exploded in Yemen,” I said out loud.

“Oh really?” asked one of my coworkers. “What happened?”

“It doesn’t say,” I said. “Would the Air Force be involved in that?”

All I got was a shrug. Nothing more was said. I made a mental note to keep tabs on it.

About a half hour later, the headline changed. This time, it said, ‘Sailors injured in Yemen explosion.”

This time, I got a feeling in my stomach that this meant something big for my office. I hunted down my supervisor. She agreed.

“They’ll probably be flying into Landstuhl,” she said, referring to the nearby military hospital, which is where most servicemembers injured outside of the United States get treated. “I haven’t heard anything from official channels yet, but thanks for letting me know.”

Satisfied I had done my job, I returned to my desk. About an hour later, near closing time, I checked the headlines again.Sailors killed in Yemen explosion, authorities suspect terrorist attack.

My supervisor had been called into a meeting, so I waited for her to return to tell her the latest update. The look on her face told me she already knew.

“Did you have dinner yet?” she asked. “Might as well grab a sandwich or something, cause it’s going to be a long night. I need you to pull up our media contact list. They [the military] are bringing the injured and the dead here.”

And that’s how my whirlwind of an evening started. As time went by, we learned the details: an apparent suicide bomber in a small boat sped into the Navy ship off the coast of Yemen, and exploded, leaving a huge gash in the side of the ship. Dozens of Sailors were injured, a few Sailors were even killed.

In response to the attacks, the Air Force was sending two of Ramstein’s aeromedical aircraft (which were like flying hospitals) to Yemen to pick up the injured and return them to Landstuhl. As President Clinton was still in office, there were no restrictions on showing the dead or injured arriving at Ramstein, and media was asking to come on base to film the Sailors’ arrival. That’s where my office got involved.

Within hours, I was yanked from behind my desk and pushed out onto the flight line to escort reporters. Shortly before one of the aircraft took off, I took a reporter on it to interview the medical crew and get some photos and video. I remember staring at the empty stretchers and knowing they would be occupied in a matter of hours.

I also answered telephone calls from news agencies and reporters I used to watch on television, all of them asking questions and trying to get information from me. I found myself thinking back to the media binders I had organized, to the words others before me had written about situations like this. I tried my best to be professional.

And then the Sailors and the bodies started arriving. I stood out on the flight line in the dark, alongside the cameras and reporters, and watched as the medical personnel unloaded stretcher after stretcher of patients. More than 30 Sailors were injured. Some were sitting up, awake but bandaged. Others were in drug-induced comas, their IVs carried beside them.

It was a very strange moment for me. I had never seen anything like it.

Late that evening, I was able to catch my breath and write an e-mail to my father, which he then forwarded to friends and family.

When I got home from work today (Oct. 12, 2007), I went to my filing cabinet and pulled out a copy of it I saved. This is what he had forwarded:Oct. 13, 2000

The attached email is from Julie. With the developments in the Middle East and the ship bombing, she was suddenly thrust into action at her base as the Media relation’s person. Going from playing solitaire on the computer to being thrown into a media frenzy in a matter of hours seems exciting enough. Her letter adds a personal charm to her experience. Just imagine, almost a year ago, she was an unemployed teenager sleeping until two in the afternoon. Thought you may find this interesting. – Larry
Hey, Dad,
It is 10 minutes until midnight and I am still at work. I got here at 7:20 a.m. I’ve been working, non-stop, for 17 hours. I don’t know where to begin to tell you everything. I really can’t. I will most definitely call you on the phone when I get home.
It’s been strange, being in the center of everything. Tonight, you are going to watch on CNN, or something, of this humanitarian mission we are doing. I was the one who took that CNN inquiry. The planes you might see, I was on just an hour or two ago. All the information you will hear about Ramstein and this attack, I was one of the people who supplied that information. Those words you will hear will be my words (or at least, I typed them out.)
The sheer size of this thing … I still haven’t comprehended it. My head is swarming with fatigue, stress, sugar and everything that has been shoved at me the past night. I am 19 years old. Just yesterday, I was being told I couldn’t do much around here. And yet, all of a sudden, I’ve gained what it takes a normal media rep years to learn. It was so weird.
Plus, I’m emotionally drained. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’m seeing that what’s on the news is, well, right here, in my hands – I am the person behind the news. The television screen is no longer my shield to the evilness and ugliness of this world. The reality is mine. And it is my job to take it and pass it along to the folks who are still naive and will go about their day.
Love this job.
The USS Cole ordeal didn’t end for us that night. It took a few days for all the bodies to be recovered. In the end, there were 17 and all of them flew to Ramstein before heading home to the states. We escorted media to each arrival.
It was quickly determined that the bombing was the result of a terrorist attack. As everyone knows, that following September, the terrorists attacked us on 9/11. To most Americans, that was their first encounter with terrorism.

For me, though, the USS Cole was my first terrorist encounter in a military career that has been defined by the global war on terrorism. In my mind, the global war on terrorism had been declared long before other Americans realized such a war existed.

The USS Cole experience was also the first time I felt like I was part of a team and that I was capable of doing my job.
Looking back, it’s truly amazing to see how much the world has changed since that time…how much I have changed, too.