A statue entitled “The Homecoming” featuring a Sailor being greeted by his family upon return from sea was set to be unveiled at Town Point Park in downtown Norfolk.
A patriotic concert featuring recording artist Lee Greenwood was on tap for a Friday night in the same riverfront park.
But the world changed the day before Greenwood was set to go on.
The Norfolk-based USS Cole (DDG 67) had been struck by terrorists in Yemen. The community was in shock and mourning as news of deaths and injuries reached back home.
“It was terrifying,” said Karen Scherberger, who was the executive director of Festevents, the Norfolk organization that planned the concert and other festivities. “There was confusion. There was fear. But immediately, you felt that resurgence of American patriotism and wanting to do something.”
Navy, city officials and even Greenwood were suddenly confronted with a decision they couldn’t have imagined.
Should they postpone the concert? Should they cancel it? Was it appropriate to go on at a time of profound grief?
The decision was unanimous.
Norfolk needed to grieve. The Navy needed to grieve. And they needed to do it together.
The concert would go on.
“It was not only appropriate, it was very appropriate and very important for the community to hear from our Navy officials and to have a place to come together,” Scherberger said.
Word spread that Town Point Park is where the community would come together to honor their friends, neighbors and fellow Sailors.
The Festevents staff scrambled to gather candles to hand out to the crowd for a vigil to honor the victims.
The park was packed as images from downtown Norfolk were broadcast around the world in the wake of the attack.
Meanwhile, Greenwood met with family members of Cole Sailors backstage before the show.
“In those days I would welcome anyone backstage who wanted to talk to me. And of course we were all sharing tears and emotions about this event,” said Greenwood, the son of a Navy World War II veteran. “It was a real strike against not just America, and not just the military, but the branch of the service that I was connected to, and that was the Navy. And I do recall that afternoon very well.”
As Greenwood took the stage, he felt a surge of emotion.
“I could just feel this rally, not just behind the families that lost someone, but just as a way of rising up and meeting this threat,” he said. “And I knew that my performance would have something to do with that, and how I could encourage and not inflame, but encourage, and bring as much emotion and positive attitude as I could to those who were issuing the rallying cry.”
Greenwood ran through a list of hits, including the song “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which he recorded before it was later made famous by Bette Midler.
He said he sang that partly to pay tribute to those who were lost and to those who saved others, including those who worked across the river from the park at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth where some of those wounded in the attack would end up being treated.
“I think the sense of the crowd was very emotional - tremendously emotional about the crew, about what had just happened,” said retired Rear Adm. Christopher Cole, the former commander of Navy Region Mid-Atlantic. “It was 17 of our shipmates and colleagues who had been killed, 37 were injured. Families were affected. It just affected everybody on a very emotional level.”
“The presentation on stage was very emotional. Particularly when Greenwood sang his anthem.”
Greenwood’s anthem was the smash hit “God Bless the USA.”
Tears flowed as Grenwood belted out a tune that was first released in 1984.
And I'm proud to be an American
Where at least I know I'm free
And I won't forget the men who died
Who gave that right to me
And I'd gladly stand up next to you
And defend Her still today
'Cause there ain't no doubt
I love this land
God Bless the U.S.A.
Those who were there still vividly remember the scene.
“The waterfront was beyond capacity with candles and people singing along and tears and people hugging each other, holding hands,” Scherberger said. “I get goose bumps now just remembering the scene at Town Point Park. … It was truly a life-changing moment for everyone who was present for that evening.”
While Greenwood has performed at thousands of shows, this particular performance still stands out to him too. He remembers the sense of sadness he saw in the crowd and how he was intent on providing an uplifting performance.
He said while the attack on the Cole may be a distant memory for some because 9/11 followed so shortly after, he said it’s important to never forget what preceded those attacks.
“You have to remember those things that are truly important, and not just to you but the people around you who have suffered through that. So we don't forget,” Greenwood said. “And I think that's what I would tell the families or those who would embrace the fact that America stands up, even if we're knocked down.”