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Ceremony held to honor sailors who died on USS Cole

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
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USS Cole crew praised at memorial
  • NEW: Wreath laid at memorial during ceremony
  • NEW: USS Cole crew praised for efforts to save ship, crewmates
  • Flags, a plaque and 17 stars commemorate those who died
  • The U.S. Navy touts improved security measures
  • USS Cole
  • Yemen
  • Terrorism
  • U.S. Navy
  • Al Qaeda

(CNN) -- On October 12, 2000, a suicide bomber attacked the USS Cole as it refueled in Aden, Yemen.

A rubber boat packed with explosives detonated, killing 17 and wounding at least 37 more.

Ten years later the destroyer -- also known as DDG 67 -- is in port at Norfolk, Virginia, after returning just a month ago from a mission in the Gulf of Aden, according to Command Duty Officer Lt. Torsten Becker.

The ship's crew and others commemorated the 10-year anniversary Tuesday at Naval Station Norfolk.

"We lost 17 of our shipmates that terrible morning 10 years ago, but they were far more than just our sailors," said Adm. J.C. Harvey Jr., commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. "They were your fathers, your sons and daughters, your sisters and brothers. They coached Little League. They loved to work on cars. They ran track and played football. They acted in high school plays. They loved life, they loved living and they loved you.

"They were proud to serve," he said. "... We remember them here in this special place, where we can keep them close."

Harvey and current Cole crew members laid a wreath before a memorial honoring those who died, after their names, rank and hometowns were read. Guests were asked to rise and "Taps" was played.

Harvey also spoke of the heroism of the Cole crew who worked for three days to save the ship and tend their injured crewmates following the explosion. They acted with no electrical power and no shipboard communication system to coordinate efforts, he said.

"The first 48 hours provided no opportunity for rest, and when they did find a moment to lay down, it was on a hot steel deck under a blazing sun," he said. "... They were on their own, and what help there was, was far away."

"Ask any of our Cole sailors today about their actions during the fight to save the ship and I believe they'll all tell you the same thing -- 'We were U.S. Navy sailors, and we did what we had to do. We just did our jobs.'

"No greater testament exists to the courage and tenacity of the Cole crew of October 2000 than the USS Cole today," he said. "We brought Cole back, healed her wounds and made her ready to serve once again, just as we did with so many of the Cole sailors who were also so grievously wounded that day."

The Navy has made changes in the decade since the incident, he said. Recruits must now undergo a drill on the same type of boat as the Cole, where they must put out fires, battle flooding and tend to wounded people -- very like what the Cole crew did following the blast.

The bomb blast 10 years ago ripped a 40-by-60-foot hole in the side of the ship, according to the U.S. Navy.

Over 14 months, shipyard workers in Pascagoula, Mississippi, replaced 550 tons of steel plate and 275 miles of cable.

After $250 million of repairs and updates, the Cole returned to duty in April 2002.

Glass cases on board the USS Cole display three American flags to commemorate the terrorist attack, according to the U.S. Navy.

The first is the flag that was flying when the attack occurred. Another draped the coffin of a fallen crew member. The third was flown upon the ship's first return to the Gulf of Aden after the attack.

A plaque commemorates the victims, and the deck is inlaid with 17 stars to serve as reminders of those who died.

"I used to play a little game with myself: say all their names every time I stepped on a star," said Daren Jones, one of 40 sailors who were on board during the attack and served with the renovated vessel's crew of 350.

"I think it sends a message of what kind of country we have and what we're willing to do to keep our ships back at sea," Jones told CNN in 2002 when the ship redeployed.

In December 2000, an investigation found that the USS Cole had not fully implemented its security plan the day of the attack.

"They didn't do everything they said they were going to do," a Pentagon official familiar with the investigation told CNN then.

The Cole was operating under an alert level that warns of "an increased and more predictable threat of terrorist activity" but with no particular target.

That threat condition calls for a standard list of anti-terrorism measures, including one that requires that "unauthorized craft should be kept away from the ship."

The blast occurred when a small boat that appeared to be friendly pulled up alongside the Cole and exploded.

In an online video, "USS Cole 10 Years Later," the Navy touts improved security measures resulting from the Cole attack.

"The attack of the Cole prompted a shift in damage control training throughout the Navy," the narration reads.

And when recruits train in "mass casualty," clocks are set at 11:18, time the USS Cole was attacked.

Meanwhile, the Cole's legacy can still be felt on board today, said Becker, who had just joined the Navy at the time of the attack but was not yet stationed on the Cole.

"We're just more situation-aware on the anti-terrorism portion of it," he said.

Becker recalled his feelings when the Navy assigned him to the Cole: "It was a surreal feeling knowing what it had gone through."

In his latest deployment aboard the ship, Becker helped rout out pirates in the Gulf of Aden, which bears the name of the port in the attack.

"Initially it was kind of unusual," Becker said. "But once we got down to business, it (the attack) was not on the forefront."

Terrorism emanating from Yemen remains a major threat to the United States, according to a recent assessment by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"American analysts now consider al Qaeda's affiliate organization in Yemen a more pressing threat to U.S. national security than the central leadership as the Yemen-based outfit is increasingly agile and looking for opportunities to strike abroad," the report said.