18 years later, families of USS Cole bombing victims still await justice
By BROCK VERGAKIS | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 12, 2018
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Mona Gunn realizes she's fortunate to have a support system in place when she misses her son Cherone, who was killed in the 2000 attack on the Norfolk-based USS Cole in Yemen.
There are the families of the 16 other sailors who died in the Oct. 12 bombing who are always there for each other. And then there are Cherone's friends who he grew up with in Virginia Beach, who are now in their late 30s or early 40s and make sure to routinely check in with her.
But even that can be a painful reminder of all that Cherone never got to experience when the outgoing Kempsville High School graduate died when he was 22 aboard the destroyer.
"It's just difficult for me when I see his friends – one of his closest friends – who is a commander in the Coast Guard, who is married, got a little girl. ... It's difficult for me to know that my son never had kids, never had that opportunity," she said following a memorial ceremony at Naval Station Norfolk, wearing a ring her son gave her that says "mom" with a heart in place of the "o."
"I knew him as a baby, a young boy. But will never get to know him as a man. He will always be 22 in my eyes."
No matter how much time goes by, the memory of that day remains fresh for the families of those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attack and are still awaiting justice.
Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, who the United States says is the mastermind behind the attack, has yet to stand trial. A military judge in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba put the death penalty case on hold indefinitely in February. Nashiri is the only person charged in connection with the attack.
Gunn said she hasn't attended hearings in the case so far, but plans to go to Cuba whenever it goes to trial.
"I was told last year by a dad that goes that they really need to see the faces of those that were killed. See the families of those that were killed," she said. "It's time. The more family, I think, the better."
For Ronald Francis, whose daughter Lekeina, 19, was killed in the attack, the constant delays in the case haven't shaken his faith in the military justice system. He said he still has full confidence in the prosecutors working the case and doesn't think it should be moved into the federal court system.
"My job as a father is to see everything go through, regardless. I don't care how long it takes – until God takes me home," he said. "I'm going to see it through and that's a promise I take dear."
Francis and his wife Sandra left their home in Woodleaf, N.C., at 2 a.m. Friday to make their annual pilgrimage to Norfolk for the Cole memorial ceremony. They hugged other family members and told stories about their daughter, who used to babysit rapper M.C. Hammer's children when she lived in the same neighborhood as his cousin. She loved to help others, had a strong faith in God and was determined to succeed as a cook even though she never cooked growing up and she did just that aboard the Cole.
Francis said it's important for him and his wife to be there to honor their daughter's memory, support the family members of other victims and connect with the current crew of the Cole, who he said could learn from his daughter's dedication to succeed through hard work.
"We always honor our sailors anyways," said Francis, a Navy veteran. My daughter lost her life, a lot of people lost their life, injured, maimed. Her blood is spilled in that keel of that ship. It's stained in there. So she's always going to be part of that ship."
Adm. Christopher Grady, the head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, assured hundreds of sailors, former crew members as well as the family members of victims that the Navy wouldn't let anyone forget about those who lost their lives. Grady in particular has a special connection to the Cole after serving as the ship's commanding officer during its first deployment once it was repaired following the attack. Among Grady's many responsibilities today is force protection, and he noted that new sailors now must undergo training at boot camp that simulates the scenario the Cole's sailors found themselves in the immediate wake of the attack.
"Our youngest sailors checking aboard our ships today were toddlers when the attack was perpetrated 18 years ago. They have no personal recollection of the event," Grady said. "So we, as leaders, are therefore responsible for ensuring our current generation derives meaning from this tragedy and I can tell you that we work very hard to keep the legacy of the heroic Cole sailors alive and well."
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