Twenty years ago, on Oct 12 terrorists rammed a small boat loaded with explosives into the USS Cole during a scheduled refueling stop in Aden, Yemen. The suicide explosion ripped a 40-by-40 foot hole in the ship’s port side, killing 17 U.S. Navy personnel and injuring many more.

Much of the blast centered below the ship’s galley, violently pushing up the deck, and instantly killing crew members lining up for lunch.

It was the deadliest attack on a U.S. vessel since Iraqi attack on USS Stark in 1987.

Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack, and less than a year later, would carry out their infamous 9/11 attack on U.S soil.

The attack on the USS Cole prompted changes in the way the U.S. Navy and indeed the U.S. military would fight from that moment onward. The small vessel had not obtained permission from the captain to approach, as the rules of engagement in 2000 prevented the destroyer’s guards from firing on the unknown boat.

But in the months that followed the attack, up until 9/11, the nation learned other painful lessons about not taking swift, high-profile retaliatory action, and how dysfunction in America’s bureaucratic and foreign policy establishments could have tragic consequences.

The failure to disrupt al-Qaeda operations after the USS Cole left a terror group ready and able to undertake its most audacious attack. In fact, one of the planners behind the USS Cole attack, Khalid al-Mihdhar, later traveled to the U.S., hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, and crashed it into the Pentagon.

Intelligence wasn’t effectively shared or coordinated between the FBI and the CIA. Links between how the USS Cole and 9/11 were connected emerged too late to help, but ultimately led to revolutionary changes in U.S. government counterterrorism efforts.

The sailors who lost their lives were:

  • Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter, 21, of Mechanicsville, Virginia
  • Chief Electronics Technician Richard Costelow, 35, of Morrisville, Pennsylvania
  • Mess Management Specialist Seaman Lakeina Monique Francis, 19, of Woodleaf, North Carolina
  • Information Systems Technician Seaman Timothy Lee Gauna, 21, of Rice, Texas
  • Signalman Seaman Cherone Louis Gunn, 22, from Virginia Beach, Virginia
  • Seaman James Rodrick McDaniels, 19, of Norfolk, Virginia
  • Engineman 2nd Class Marc Ian Nieto, 24, of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
  • Electronics Warfare Technician 2nd Class Ronald Scott Owens, 24, of Vero Beach, Florida
  • Seaman Lakiba Nicole Palmer, 22, of San Diego, California
  • Fireman Joshua Langdon Parlett, 19, of Churchville, Maryland
  • Fireman Patrick Howard Roy, 19, from Keedysville, Maryland
  • Electronic Warfare Technician 1st Class Kevin Shawn Rux, 30, of Portland, North Dakota
  • Mess Management Specialist 3rd Class Ronchester Manangan Santiago, 22, of Kingsville, Texas
  • Operations Specialist 2nd Class Timothy Lamont Saunders, 32, of Ringgold, Virginia
  • Fireman Gary Graham Swenchonis Jr., 26, from Rockport, Texas
  • Ensign Andrew Triplett, 31, of Macon, Mississippi
  • Seaman Craig Bryan Wibberley, 19, of Williamsport, Maryland

The 17 sailors who perished on October 12, 2000 died in peacetime, on a routine stop. But that makes their loss and sacrifice no less great.

They gave their lives in service to their nation, and for that we will all be eternally grateful.