Tuesday, November 20, 2001

The Navy has denied a pension to the widow of a lieutenant who helped rescue the USS Cole after last year’s terrorist strike because he died last week on Veteran’s Day 33 days shy of his 20-year pension.
Lt. John Russell, 41, suffered a massive heart attack while helping a fellow Navy officer trim branches from a backyard tree in Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 11. Three days later, on the afternoon of his wake, his widow was told she would not be receiving a lifelong pension of about $1,500 a month.
“It makes me very angry,” said Mary Russell, the mother of two young boys. “He gave up his youth for the Navy. And I sacrificed a lot waiting for him to come home, always waiting for our ship to come in.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan Conrad, who worked with Lt. Russell before retiring, was outraged by the ruling.
“I just think it’s wrong,” Cmdr. Conrad said. “This was a great American and I think he deserved better.”
Lt. Russell has been on the Navy’s payroll for more than 20 years. He enlisted on Aug. 14, 1981, under an arrangement that allowed him to report for duty on Dec. 14, which is now considered the official start of his service.
Late last year, Lt. Russell was on the USS Tarawa in the Arabian Sea when the USS Cole was struck by a terrorist explosion that killed 17 sailors while moored in the Yemeni port of Aden. The bombing was linked to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network.
The heavily armed Tarawa, an amphibious assault ship that Lt. Russell liked to call “40,000 tons of twisted steel and sex appeal,” steamed toward the stricken Cole. Lt. Russell insisted to his commanding officer that he be involved in the rescue.
Upon arriving at the scene, Lt. Russell commandeered a Yemeni tugboat and, after checking it for booby traps, maneuvered it alongside the 40-foot-wide hole that had been ripped into the destroyer’s hull.
“As the sun came up, the hole got more pronounced,” Lt. Russell recalled after the incident. “When a wave came by, water would go right inside. I mean, it was horrifying.”
As Islamic fundamentalists with daggers tucked in their waistbands jeered at him from the shore, Lt. Russell helped maneuver the Cole away from a pier and out to safe waters.
“We had to get her out of there,” he said.
During this deployment, Lt. Russell became one of more than 1,400 overseas service members whose absentee ballots in last year’s election were disqualified at the request of former Vice President Al Gore. When the episode turned into a public relations fiasco for Mr. Gore, hundreds of ballots including Lt. Russell’s were resurrected, although many more remain uncounted.
Lt. Russell once served on the USS John F. Kennedy under Capt. Mike Miller, who now works in the White House military liaison office. When he learned about the pension problem, Capt. Miller started placing phone calls.
“You know, sometimes just working at the White House has a way of getting people to at least reconsider some decisions that may or may not be the right thing to do,” Capt. Miller told The Washington Times.
“But I’ve called all the Navy folks and, according to the Navy regulations and all the people that manage this for us, they say that it’s non-waiverable, that you have to have 20 years.
“So I looked at trying to appeal this to the Board of Correction of Naval Records, to request that his service date be adjusted,” he said. “But I don’t have any grounds for that.”
Meanwhile, Lt. Richard Tucker, the benefits coordinator assigned to the Russell case, has been trying to assemble an alternative package of benefits from such agencies as the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration.
“I haven’t exhausted my efforts yet,” he said. “John was a very likable fellow with a lot of friends here. The Navy would bend over backwards to do everything they could for him. And they may still.”
Lt. Russell’s brother-in-law, Philip Mahoney of Virginia, has begun calling members of Congress to lobby for special legislation that would award the pension to his sister and her sons, Kyle, 14, and Ian, 10.
“I’m not upset with the Navy or anyone else; I just want something for Kyle and Ian,” said Mr. Mahoney, who become emotional. “I served in the Marine Corps six and a half years and I’m proud to say that he was my brother-in-law. He instilled so much pride in me.”

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide