Honor. Courage. Commitment.
Those words may mean something different to every individual, but for members of the U.S. Navy, active duty and retired, they represent sacred values central to a life of service.
Twenty years ago, the honor, courage and commitment of sailors aboard the USS Cole were tested in a way that few can imagine and none would want to experience.
Shortly after making a refueling stop in the port of Aden, Yemen, a rubber dinghy loaded with explosives rammed into the side of the ship in a callous and cowardly suicide attack. The explosion ripped a hole in the port side of the Cole, where the engine room, mess and living quarters were located.
Seventeen sailors died and 39 were wounded. Though the Cole was only scheduled to be in port a few hours, the blast occurred as some of the ship’s 300 sailors were eating lunch and struck a spot that inflicted catastrophic damage.
Those aboard, their hearts heavy, relied on their training and worked furiously for days to keep the ship afloat and tend to the wounded. The Cole’s engine was so severely damaged that it had to be loaded on a heavy transport ship for the journey back to the United States.
This was an American tragedy, an attack on our armed forces by terrorists hostile to our democratic values and resentful of the U.S. military presence abroad. The al-Qaida network deemed responsible for the bombing would use it to gather funds, attract recruits and launch future operations, including those on Sept. 11, 2001.
But for Hampton Roads, this was a local tragedy that claimed the lives of fathers and a mother, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. They were what President Bill Clinton described as “our nation’s greatest strength — people in uniform rooted in every race, creed and region on the face of the Earth, yet bound together by a common commitment to freedom, and a common pride in being Americans.”
The loss was felt deeply here, where sailors made their homes, where their children went to school, where they gathered with friends in backyards to hold fast to the waning days of autumn and welcome the warmth of spring.
It is here, at Naval Station Norfolk, where a memorial to the fallen still stands sentinel overlooking Willoughby Bay. The inscription reads, “In lasting tribute to their Honor, Courage and Commitment.”
As Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, said in hearings about the incident, “This attack was a vivid reminder of the risks our men and women in uniform face on a daily basis in much of the world. They do so to protect our freedom and that of our allies and friends around this troubled world.”
The world remains as troubled as ever. New threats emerge as others ebb. The nation, as ever, depends on the members of the military to protect us and defend us, bravely putting themselves in peril on our behalf.
The men and women who serve do so with distinction, though their sacrifice too often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. We thank them, though it is inadequate compensation for the courageous work they do.
We also treasure and honor the memories of those brave service members who make the ultimate sacrifice, though commemorating the memories of the fallen also seems insufficient for what Abraham Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” to this nation.
Perhaps, in tribute, we should consider that which they held sacred — Honor, Courage, Commitment — and seek to apply those values to our lives, our communities and our nation. We should strive to work every day to make this a better, stronger and more caring nation, one worthy of so awesome a sacrifice.
Let that be our charge as we pause this weekend to commemorate the lives lost and honor the service of those who demonstrated their honor, courage and commitment in one of the Navy’s darkest hours.
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.