Not to worry, they said.
“I remember the recruiter just flat out telling mom, you know, your son is safe. I mean there’s nothing going to happen to your son. He’s going to be on a ship. Ships don’t get in trouble. Ships have got missiles,” Burnworth said. “I mean, he just, he sold it like never before.”
Burnworth’s brother was in the Marines, his father was in the Army and his grandfather served in the Navy. He was ready to be like them.
He joined the Navy in 1999. He was 18.
The following year, he was one of the crew members fighting to survive aboard the destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) after it had been attacked by terrorists while in port in Yemen.
The surprise attack changed what the United States thought it knew about war and conflict. Seventeen Sailors died in the attack and 37 were injured, including Burnworth.
The tragedy was a watershed moment for the Navy, which sprung into action to save the ship, changed the way it operated to better guard against terrorism, and placed a premium on caring for the families of victims and those who survived.
And in Burnworth’s case, the promise to look after him once he got home wasn’t something that was temporary until things got back to normal. It was the beginning of an unlikely, yet lifelong friendship.
Burnworth worked in the ship’s engineering department and he was in their berthing area writing down some of his thoughts about his first deployment when the explosion hit.
“The first thing that went through my mind was that we had a fuel explosion. We had some kind of explosion, based on feeling. I didn't think in any way, shape, or form that we had had a terrorist attack,” he said.
Burnworth had just taken his boots off before the explosion so he could change out of his coveralls. But after the lights went out, he couldn’t find them anymore. He found a pair of firefighting boots that were much too big for him, but he wore them anyway.
As he walked up a ladderwell, there was water everywhere.
“I mean it looked like someone had just stabbed an inflatable pool, and it just burst down the scuttle, I mean that’s just how much water was coming down,” he said. “And that’s when I think I even got more freaked out because I associated, you know, now the ship is sinking.”
Burnworth heard people yelling and screaming. There was haze in the air. Electrical lines had been severed.
Eventually, he made it topside where his designated lifeboat position was. It was there — with burning fuel and debris falling from the air and hitting him in one of his eyes — that he learned from another crew member the explosion was caused by a bomb.
What happened next is foggy. Burnworth remembers joining someone else to look for injured crew members. But his friend hit his head hard on a pipe he didn’t see.
Burnworth said he recalls being worried about being electrocuted with so many frayed wires as they waded through waist-deep water.
“I wasn’t as heroic as I think I should’ve been,” he said. “It scared the (expletive) out of me.”
He said he thinks his friend found some injured people, but it was so chaotic it’s hard to remember. He said he was on the ship for several hours before he was taken off with injuries.
At some point, something had hit him hard in the back. One of his feet had been crushed. Most concerning, he had gotten an infection from something in the water.
“I was not in any way, as seriously injured as some of my friends and by some of those guys from the Cole. In no way,” he said.
Still, Burnworth was taken first to a hospital in Yemen. Then he was transferred to one in Germany. Eventually, he was taken to Norfolk.
He didn’t know it at the time. But it would be there where he would meet the person he still calls his ‘Navy mom,’ 20 years later.
Georgia Monsam was serving as the command master chief at Navy Region Mid-Atlantic in Norfolk when the attack happened. The command oversees Navy bases in the region as well as the services they provide to Sailors and their families.
It was her job, she said, to make sure people were taken care of the wake of the attack. Whatever people needed, she got: Hotels, flights, food. The hour didn’t matter. She slept at work in those first hectic days.
Often though, it was a shoulder to cry on or just someone to listen to that families and victims needed. She offered that, too.
Burnworth’s mother had told Monsam she was worried because her son wasn’t opening up to her about what had happened.
“I’m like, mom, that’s pretty natural. You know a 19-year-old boy’s not gonna tell his mom what it’s like to have his boat blown up out at sea for fear of worrying you and all that. But you know if you get Nicholas home and he’s struggling you can send him back to me and we’ll get him in touch with people where he can process that, he can be with people that went through a similar process,” she said.
A few weeks after the memorial ceremony and after some time home in Florida, Burnworth returned for duty in Norfolk and showed up in Monsam’s office.
“From that day forward, I became his Navy mom,” she said.
Monsam was there to advise Burnworth every step of his career. He didn’t want to leave the Navy after the attack. He was determined to stay in and not be defined by it.
If he ever needed someone to talk to - about anything at all — Monsam was there.
After his mother went through a divorce and moved to California where his brother was stationed, Monsam helped Burnworth get an assignment out there too.
“That helped out our family. That helped keep us together,” he said. “It was a hard time for me and my brother.”
Monsam remained close with his mother too. They visited each other from time to time and kept in touch through illnesses and celebrations.
“Georgia became a support group for my mother as well. So, Georgia has always been in my life,” he said.
Monsam is such an important part of Burnworth’s life, that she is who he asked to speak at his retirement ceremony last year.