It’s Memorial Day Sunday in Fairfax City. The big bikes are rolling down Fairfax Boulevard. Colorful costumes, flags and tattoos are everywhere. The world is awash in red, white and blue (and leather).
We gathered this morning at Patriot Harley Davidson to kick off the “Ride of the Patriots.” After fifteen years, it still gives me goose bumps to be there.
At the kickoff celebration, we had a speech from a gentleman with a unique voice on Memorial Day: Commander Kirk Lippold, former skipper of the USS Cole.
The Cole was viciously attacked on October 12, 2000, by al-Qaeda terrorists, while it was refueling at the port of Aden in the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen.
In the series of events known as The War on Terror, this was Pearl Harbor.
The blast happened at 11:00 a.m., while much of the crew was on the mess deck. The destroyer was hit amidships by a motorboat carrying over 500 pounds of explosives. Five sailors were killed immediately and dozens more wounded. A gaping hole was blown in the side of the ship.
It was a moment for panic. But no one panicked.
Captain Lippold isolated the structural damage and organized his men into bucket brigades to keep the ship afloat. He flew off 39 men who were wounded. He tried to reach the dozen men trapped in the wreckage. (Alas, they would all perish).
Most importantly, he refused to abandon the ship or strike the colors. In fact, he not only kept them flying that night — he ordered a spotlight shown on them.
In the heart of hostile elements, the survival of the USS Cole and its continued flying of the American flag sent a clear message: We’re still here. And so is our mission of freedom.
Eventually other US Navy ships reached the Cole and towed it to safety. After three weeks, the rubble had been cleared below decks and the bodies recovered. Only then did Captain Lippold hold a service at which all ranks spoke and remembered their fellow sailors.
Captain Lippold’s refusal to become a victim, or let his ship sink, was an important stand, especially in the Middle East. It denied a public relations victory to Al Qaeda, who continued to attack U.S. targets — but in true cowardly fashion focused on civilians, and left our military alone.
Today we remember the USS Cole with a memorial in Norfolk, where the ship was based and where many of the sailors lived. Commander Lippold is alive and well. He spoke today and was kind enough to share some of those details with me afterwards.
Thank you to him and all others who have served this great nation in our times of war.