‘PART OF ME DIED WHEN HE DIED’
Twenty years later, families recall loved ones killed in terrorist attack on the USS Cole
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.