Sailors aboard the USS Cole, bombed by terrorists in 2000 as it refueled in Yemen, are getting their feet wet in the Mediterranean before the repaired ship returns for the first time to the Middle East since the deadly attack.

On Monday, the guided-missile destroyer entered into the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet as part of a seven-vessel expeditionary strike group, led by the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima. Now, roughly 6,000 sailors and Marines will spend three weeks in the Mediterranean before heading to the Middle East.

While the deployment is the Cole’s second since the attack, it is the first cruise back to the Middle East since October 2000, when terrorists blew a hole in the side of the vessel and killed 17 sailors.

“I am proud to hear that [the Cole] is actually going back to the Middle East, but at the same time concerned because, as we know by history of al-Qaida, they will try again,” said Master Chief Petty Officer James Parlier, who was on the Cole when it was attacked.

The destroyer’s return “shows our enemy that we are not defeated, and the very ship they attacked is going to help defend our cause, and that is doing the right thing for Iraq and its people,” Parlier said by e-mail in Great Lakes, Ill.

While in the Med, the strike group will work with navies from Greece, France, Cyprus, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, officials said.

“The port visits are twofold: we have a strong desire to get the ships and their crews to good liberty port calls, but there is more of a strategic focus, and that is to build and strengthen partnerships with those countries,” said Navy Lt. Chris Servello, a 6th Fleet spokesman.

Stars and Stripes reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this report

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