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“That morning, before we pulled in, I was on the bridge wing with OS2 Saunders standing watch, and we talked a bit about the Navy,” said retired Command Master Chief James Parlier. “He said he couldn’t understand why some Sailors complained all the time. He loved what the Navy did for him. They fed him; they gave him a uniform to wear. Little did I know, that would be the last time I would see him before I treated him for a mortal wound.”
Parlier joined the Navy in 1978 when he was 21 years old, serving over 20 years as a hospital corpsman before becoming the command master chief of the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) in 1999. He spent the previous 9 years as an independent duty corpsman (IDC), serving on sea and land alongside Sailors and Marines.
On the morning of October 12, 2000, USS Cole was scheduled for refueling in Yemen’s Aden harbor.
“It’s a hot, third-world country,” said Parlier. “As we were pulling in, I was looking at the houses, and they were so poorly made; no glass in the windows. It was like you were back in time.”
Parlier remembers that Thursday morning aboard the ship; walking the passageways, verifying the safety of the crew as they performed their duties, and hearing the captain arguing with the harbor pilot over which side of the ship they should pull up to the refueling pier.
Captain won. Starboard side.
“When we were entering port, I saw a half-sunk boat on our starboard side and abandoned Iraqi tankers on our left side,” said Parlier. “You just got an eerie feeling that something wasn’t right.”
However, according to Parlier, everything was running smoothly. The quarterdeck was being set up so small boats could pull alongside to pick up garbage. Chow was being prepared in the galley. Parlier made his way to his office on the mess deck. It was almost lunch time. Chicken fajitas, Parlier recalled nearly 20 years later.
Refueling was underway.
“I realized I had a meeting, so I started to make my way back aft,” said Parlier. “Had I remained in my office, I would not be here today. I passed ground zero within five minutes of the blast.”
It was a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation meeting with Damage Controlman 1st Class Ernesto Garcia and the ship’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Peterschmidt, so Parlier was required to be present. As they discussed getting new TVs for the berthing, a small leisure boat approached the port side of the ship.
The meeting ended.
It was 11:18 a.m.
The blast occurred.
“I saw a BM3 instantly come out of the boatswain office in pain and screaming,” said Parlier. “Initially, I had thought the fuel pod we were refueling at had exploded, but that was not the case.”
Immediately, the executive officer hopped on the phone. It was dead.
“We went to [general quarters] by word of mouth, and the billion-dollar warship was rendered crippled, as we had no comms, no engineering, and no defense,” said Parlier.
Al-Qaeda suicide bombers had approached the port side of USS Cole in a small leisure boat laden with explosives; the detonation resulting in a 40-foot by 60-foot hole in the side of the ship.
The full extent of the damage was not yet known.
Battle stations were manned, and Parlier took his predetermined spot in the aft battle dress station (BDS), where his skills as a former hospital corpsman would reemerge in a time of need.
Parlier had trained with USS Cole’s IDC, Chief Hospital Corpsman Cliff Moser, Hospitalman Tayinikia Campbell, and departmental striker, Seaman Eban Sanchez, before, and they had all agreed for Parlier to help in the event of a real-world situation.
This was the real-world situation, and nearly 20 Sailors needed immediate medical attention. “Doc” Moser was nowhere to be found.
“At this point, we did not know if Chief Moser was alive or not,” said Parlier.
Word had passed of more extensive damage in a forward part of the ship, and Campbell would have to take over for Parlier in the aft BDS.
More Sailors were injured on the mess decks and galley.
“As I went along travelling through the ship, I realized the extent of the damage and the extent of injured and dead,” said Parlier. “You had to remain calm and do what you were taught, and that happened with most all the crew. You had damage control going on at the same time patients were being treated and staged. Little did we realize that we only had power to the aft end of the ship, and the rest had no power. Some spaces were arcing and sparking, as we did have only one generator working, and the other two out of commission. The main engines were damaged, the biggest spaces on the ship were flooded, and bulkheads were collapsing and buckled. No potable water; fuel oil spilled into the ship. Then you had to worry about a second attack to finish us off.”
“It was hard as I helped put some of my shipmates in body bags,” said Parlier. “I actually lost one 19-year-old Sailor while performing CPR, and that was very hard. It was emotional, but once things settled down, I found out Doc Moser was alive. That was a relief.”
Parlier learned Moser had lost a chief petty officer while doing CPR, just as Parlier had done while performing CPR on Seaman Apprentice Craig Bryan Wibberley, the 19-year-old Sailor.
“We hugged and cried for a moment, and then knew we had to get it together and do our jobs for the Sailors of Cole and our mission,” said Parlier.
Parlier, Moser, and the rest of the crew fought tirelessly to free shipmates trapped by the twisted wreckage and limit flooding that threatened to sink the ship. The crew’s prompt actions to isolate damaged electrical systems and contain fuel oil ruptures prevented catastrophic fires that could have engulfed the ship and cost the lives of countless men and women. Skillful first aid and advanced medical treatment applied by the crew prevented additional death and eased the suffering of many others. Drawing upon their Navy training and discipline, the crew heroically conducted more than 96 hours of sustained damage control in conditions of extreme heat and stress.
Through all the destruction and mayhem, Parlier and the rest of USS Cole crew fought to save their ship and shipmates. 17 did not survive.
“Bottom line is: we all had our own way with dealing with this attack,” said Parlier. “Some were medevac’d home, and others remained and were ‘Determined Warriors,’ determined to stay and complete the mission at hand.”
The mission at hand was to get USS Cole steady and out of that harbor.
The Marine antiterrorism unit was the first to arrive. Then Navy SEALs. Then HMS Marlborough. Then the Marine amphibious ready group. Then the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Over a period of a week, Navy and Marine forces would arrive on scene to help the Sailors on that guided-missile destroyer.
The USS Cole would survive.
“When the USS Hawes first came to our ship with a small boat, I knew the CMC, and he asked me what we wanted after days of eating snack food and drinking bottled water,” said Parlier. “I asked for ‘chili mac.’ Boy, did that reenergize the crew and reinvigorate their spirits.”
Some Sailors would have a tougher time than others recovering from the terror that was experienced on that day.
“All our minds are different, and we all deal with traumatic events differently,” said Parlier. “There were a lot of young minds there, so some had a tough time, and others did not, but I would say the most important thing was we had each other and were able to talk about and share our experiences and how we dealt with it. That really does help.”
Nearly 20 years later, Parlier still shares his experiences and lessons with ears that desire to hear them.
“I think of it every day, as something always reminds me; some days more than others,” said Parlier. “I have been speaking about my experience to various different organizations for the past 20 years now, and that does help. I volunteer my time, and do not charge anything. I feel things will come back to me in life in different ways.”
Parlier’s story is one filled with emotion, passion, and lessons.
“Comradeship is so important, as well as crew integrity,” said Parlier. “We had that. This crew met the Core Values of our Navy, and I am so proud of them. This crew is an example of when you follow those who lead and inspire and have confidence in them, you will succeed. I truly believe we had the right leadership in place, from the wardroom, to the CPO Mess, to the deck plates. We were truly blessed.”
Parlier’s story extends a message to the current ‘Determined Warriors’ serving on the still-operational USS Cole, homeported in Norfolk, Va.
“I am honored to be called a ‘Determined Warrior,’ as we proved that day and weeks after,” said Parlier. “We were those warriors and stood fast. Our inspiration was the soiled American flag flying back aft, and that is what we as Sailors and Americans are all about. As we know, freedom is not free, and we saw some of our shipmates give their lives to keep our country the way it is today.”
Sailors aboard the USS Cole during the attack on October 12, 2000, felt as if it was ground zero for the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Less than a year after the attack, a then-emboldened enemy would conduct terror attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001. The GWOT is one that is still being fought today.
Thousands of U.S. service members from all branches of the military have lost their lives in action since the beginning of the GWOT.
Operations Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Saunders, who Parlier spoke to on the bridge wing that morning, was one of those 17 Sailors who gave their lives in sacrifice for their country aboard the USS Cole on October 12, 2000. After suffering heavy injuries from the blast, Parlier tended to his wounds, but unfortunately could not do enough to save him.
“You learn to cherish what you have and life itself,” said Parlier, who retired from naval service in 2006. “We who survived Cole understand that in our own ways, and appreciate the time God has given us to remain on this earth, and continue to live for ourselves and our families and for our faith.”