- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

NORFOLK — Every day the sailors aboard the USS Cole walk across a reminder of the attack that made the destroyer the most famous ship in the U.S. Navy fleet.

The deck in the corridor leading to the dining area has 17 gold stars — one for each sailor killed when terrorists bombed the Cole as it was refueling in Yemen’s port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000.

No sailors from that crew are still on the Cole, which left yesterday morning to head to the Middle East for the first time since an explosives-laden boat rammed into it, blasting a huge hole in its side.

The Cole pulled away from the pier at Norfolk Naval Station at 9 a.m. It is expected to be gone six months.

A few hours before the Cole departed, crew members learned that Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, had been killed in a U.S. air strike.

“I think today’s news shows that the struggle against terrorism is going to still continue on and be long. However, this is a path in the right direction,” Cmdr. Bradley Roberson told “The Early Show” on CBS. “It shows that the troops over in Iraq are doing a great job, aided by the Iraqi people, and things are going well.”

Sailors in the current crew of 320, including many who asked to be assigned to the Cole, say they are unafraid to deploy to that region.

“You’re looking over your shoulder, maybe a little nervous pulling into ports and stuff like that,” Chief Petty Officer Robin Guy said Tuesday as the crew prepared to deploy.

“But I think right now throughout the world we have to be like that on any of our ships,” said Chief Guy, 35, of Virginia Beach. “That threat is there, whether you’re here or overseas.”

The stars in the Cole’s “Hall of Heroes” signal to the sailors to stay vigilant and do their jobs well, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jessica Saunders, 21, of Belfast, Maine.

The sailors killed in the attack “died defending our freedom,” she said. “The only thing we can do is continue defending our freedom so it’s safe for our children and their children’s children.”

The Cole is one of six ships and a submarine with 6,000 sailors and Marines leaving the East Coast this week to conduct security operations in support of the war on terrorism.

The ships will deploy to the 5th Fleet’s area of responsibility, 7.5 million square miles that include the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.

The ship’s captain noted that this is the Cole’s second deployment overseas since the crew saved it from sinking and the ship underwent $250 million of repairs. In 2003 and 2004, the Cole spent six months in the Mediterranean Sea.

“This is an active national monument,” Cmdr. Roberson said. “It says we will stay, we will persevere and we will be around to make sure the mission gets done.”

Command Master Chief Petty Officer Pat Reynolds, 44, of Lubbock, Texas, has been in the Navy for 25 years but has been aboard the Cole for only three weeks. He requested the duty in part because he was impressed with the crew’s ability after the attack to come together to save the ship.

“The ship is metal. It’s the living, breathing crew that makes it special,” he said, adding that he has no doubt every member of the current crew would perform as well if something should happen again.

Master Chief Reynolds said he can’t wait to deploy to protect U.S. interests and show “the world we’re professional and that we mean business.”

For him, the hardest part will be leaving behind his wife, four daughters and 5-month-old granddaughter.

“They couldn’t be more proud of what I do, but it doesn’t hurt any less when they have to wave goodbye,” he said.

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