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Families Of USS Cole Victims Pull Together

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The damage caused to the USS Cole after the terrorist attack in October 2000 that killed 17 sailors.
U.S. Navy
The damage caused to the USS Cole after the terrorist attack in October 2000 that killed 17 sailors.

The alleged mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing was arraigned Wednesday. The Cole was based in Norfolk, Virginia, so the deaths of 17 servicemen and women in the suicide attack in October of 2000, has hit Virginia especially hard. The families of the victims have drawn closer together in a community of support.

Losing one family member, gaining others

Frederica McDaniels-Abbott lost her younger brother James in the attack eleven years ago, and she returned to the Norfolk Naval Station, where she first learned of her brother's death, to watch the arraignment of Abd Al-Rahim Al-Nashiri. The 46-year-old Al-Nashiri is accused of planning the attack, and entered no plea to the charges.

"He just smiled so many times," says McDaniels-Abbott. "It just seemed like he had no care in the world."

Sitting nearby were Lou and Mona Gunn, from Virginia Beach. Lou, a tall retired naval officer, was in awe that the trial had finally begun after nine long years: "Well hey, about time they brought this fool to justice!"

The Gunns lost their son Cherone in the Cole attack, but Mona says they gained a whole new family: "It was just so helfpful to pick up the phone and call somebody else who’s feeling the same way you felt."

Frederica McDaniels-Abbott says she and her mother Dianne were instantly connected with Mona and Gloria Clodfelter, who lives near Richmond. In the days after the attack, she says, both women repeatedly checked on her mother, who at one point considered suicide.

Anniverary brings families together

Every year, the anniversary of the bombing serves a chance to thank them at the annual Cole Memorial. Gloria, who is the mother hen of the group, is now battling an illness. Even so, she and her husband John traveled to Guantanamo Bay for the arraignment this week. They had to suffer through burying their son Kenneth multiple times.

"They detonated the bomb right where Kenneth was sitting and that’s why we’ve had to bury Kenneth three different times now, or parts of him, " says Clodfelter.

Kenneth Clodfelter lies besides Cherone Gunn at Arlington National Cemetary. Each year, the families make the trek to visit their fallen sons. When their names started fading off their tombstones, John found a special paint to make the letters visible. John says he knew the Cole families had become a family of their own when they were called to the FBI to participate in a meeting. Many couldn't come, and called in by phone.

"All of a sudden, we were just saying good bye," says Clodfelter. "Everyone was just recognizing each other by our voices."

They are voices that have comforted and cajoled, counseled and confronted. Everyone shares the same frustration.

"It should not take 11-12 years to bring these people to trial," says Clodfelter.

"It’s almost like the same death is recurring over and over again," says McDaneils-Abbott

While the families will likely never know the true extent of the plot which took their sons' lives, they are making sure to never forget the sailors who served and died that day. 

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