‘PART OF ME DIED WHEN HE DIED’

Twenty years later, fam­i­lies re­call loved ones killed in ter­ror­ist at­tack on the USS Cole

Daily Press - - FRONT PAGE - By Dave Ress Staff writer

Sarah Gauna Esquivel re­mem­bers the day her 19-year-old first­born, Tim, headed off to Naval Sta­tion Great Lakes for boot camp.

“I’d just mar­ried, and he told my hus­band to take care of me. Then he looked at me and said: ‘He’s a keeper, mom,’” she says.

It’s harder to re­mem­ber when he came home.

“We buried him three times,” she says. The first time was two weeks af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tack on USS Cole, which killed her son and 16 ship­mates 20 years ago.

A few weeks later, the Navy gave her Ti­mothy Lee Gauna’s ashes. She gave them to

Pas­tor Russ

Mills, who had known her and Tim all of Tim’s life, and who just a few weeks ago, promised to travel with her to Nor­folk for a memo­rial ser­vice on the 20th

an­niver­sary of the at­tack. He died of COVID-19 be­fore he could.

Still later, she got word that ad­di­tional re­mains had been found, and were buried at sea, in the an­cient naval tra­di­tion.

She’s cry­ing as she says she hasn’t shared that story much.

“A part of me died when he died,” she says.

A heart-shaped wreath

Ev­ery Valen­tine’s Day from 2001 on, Mona Gunn and her late hus­band Lou, a Navy vet­eran, would make the long drive up to Ar­ling­ton Ceme­tery from Vir­ginia Beach to lay a heart-shaped wreath on the grave of their sec­ond-old­est son, Cherone. He was just 21 when he died in the at­tack on USS Cole.

Valen­tine’s Day was his birth­day. His fam­ily and friends of­ten felt that birth­day had blessed him with a par­tic­u­larly happy, lov­ing per­son­al­ity.

Shortly af­ter he fin­ished at Great Lakes in March, 2000, and be­fore join­ing the crew of the Cole, he had spent most of that July vis­it­ing aunts and un­cles and school friends from his days at Kempsville High School.

There were lots of vis­its.

“He said: ‘ This is my first de­ploy­ment, Mom, you’re go­ing to miss me and I’ll miss you, but I’ll be back,” Mona Gunn re­mem­bers.

“He’d head out say­ing: ‘I’ll be back, I’m go­ing out to say my good­byes.”

First ship

The Cole was also Tim Gauna’s first ship. Just be­fore post­ing there that sum­mer, he had a few days leave and spent it back home, in En­nis, Texas.

“We spent the time to­gether, watch­ing movies, eat­ing pizza,” Sarah says.

But sea duty loomed, and Tim wasn’t re­ally look­ing for­ward to de­ploy­ing.

“I think he had a feel­ing some­thing was go­ing to hap­pen,” she says. “He told me, maybe if I break a leg, I won’t have to go. I said: ‘Think of it like a va­ca­tion you couldn’t af­ford, the mem­o­ries you’ll come back with.”

Like many young Amer­i­cans, Tim joined the Navy in hopes of find­ing a path to col­lege. His goal was to go to the Univer­sity of Texas and study com­puter science, maybe play some base­ball — he

was a star first base­man and left-handed hit­ter in high school.

“I was a sin­gle mom, he knew we couldn’t af­ford that,” Sarah says. “He knew I had to work, he al­ways un­der­stood — I had to miss some of his games …”

She’s cry­ing again.

“He was so re­spon­si­ble … he’d help look af­ter his younger broth­ers and sis­ters,” she says. “He was a real ‘Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. Yes, sir. No, sir.’ kind of kid. That’s the way I brought him up.”

When he called his mom the week­end be­fore the at­tack, he com­mis­er­ated about t he Longhorns’ stun­ning loss to ri­val Ok­la­homa — the score was 63-14 — and joked that he would need to throw away the tape be­cause the Cole was full of OU fans who were sure to give him a hard time.

He said he couldn’t tell her where the Cole was headed, but said she’d know if she watched the news, and griped a bit about a sched­ule change that had him eat­ing lunch at 2 p.m.

The new­ness of a first de­ploy­ment

Cherone Gunn’s calls home were filled with ques­tions about

the strange new world of a Navy ship on a de­ploy­ment and lots of an­swers and good ad­vice from his dad, re­mem­ber­ing his first cruise.

Cherone didn’t seem wor­ried about the dan­ger­ous wa­ters into which the Cole was headed.

On his last call home, he told his mom he’d just fin­ished with mess crank­ing — the chore all newly as­signed sailors take on, help­ing the ship’s cooks serve and clean up

He would die in the Cole’s gal­ley. That’s where the bombladen boat that at­tacked the Cole struck the de­stroyer.

But from what his ship­mates later told his mother, Cherone didn’t need to be there.

He was done with crank­ing. But when on that never-pop­u­lar duty, his ship­mates re­mem­bered his cheer­ful spirit and ef­fi­cient help — per­haps a legacy of his days as a ju­nior at Kempsville High in the hos­pi­tal­ity-cater­ing co­op­er­a­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram and happy af­ter­noons work­ing at a nearby Hol­i­day Inn. He had loved the part of his job at the ho­tel driv­ing the air­port shut­tle, fer­ry­ing flight crews and pilots to and from the air­port, and it had won him much good will and many smiles.

On the Cole, too, the cooks liked him a lot.

“They’d tell him, ‘C’mon back here, have some food with us,’” Mona Gunn said.

“I think that’s where he was that day.”

That fate­ful lunchtime

On that dread­ful Tues­day morn­ing, with re­ports that the boat-bomb that hit Cole struck it next to the gal­ley, re­mem­ber­ing that mild com­plaint about a late lunch sched­ule would give Sarah Gauna Esquivel a reed of hope through six ag­o­niz­ing days.

It wasn’t un­til Oct. 18 that that hope van­ished.

That’s when Tim was found by his ship­mates.

Still later, a ship­mate — the Cole’s crew were a close-knit group and stay in touch — told her Tim had just got­ten up from the gal­ley ta­ble to fetch some pineap­ple for him­self and a friend when the bomb went off.

“I keep think­ing, if only he hadn’t got up, he might be alive,” she says.

“And then I think he wasn’t only my child. He was God’s.”

STEPHEN M. KATZ/STAFF FILE

Ja­mal Gunn of Vir­ginia Beach, cen­ter, with his mother Mona, re­mem­bers his brother, Sea­man Cherone Gunn, dur­ing a 2018 cer­e­mony at Naval Sta­tion Nor­folk to ob­serve the an­niver­sary of the bomb­ing of the USS Cole.

BILL JANSCHA/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

Sarah Gauna, mother of USS Cole Sea­man Ti­mothy Gauna, holds the flag she was pre­sented dur­ing a cer­e­mony at the ceme­tery in En­nis, Texas, on Oct. 25, 2000. Gauna was buried with full mil­i­tary hon­ors.

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