Believe it or not, it was 12 years ago this Friday that the U.S.S. Cole, a Navy destroyer, docked in Yemen and became the target of a terrorist attack.
A total of 17 sailors were killed on that day, including two from the Coastal Bend; 26-year old Gary Swenchonis, Jr., of Rockport, and 22-year old Ronchester Santiago from Kingsville.
Santiago enlisted in the Navy right after his graduation from H.M. King High School in 1996. He was a cook onboard the U.S.S. Cole on that fateful day, Oct. 12, 2000, when the ship was attacked.
"MS3 Ronchester Santiago from Kingsville was only 22 years old," said Captain Mark McLaughlin, commanding officer at Naval Air Station Kingsville. "He was so young, and he was doing exactly what he wanted to do. He joined the Navy and he became a cook, and he was serving on a foreign deployed ship, doing exactly what the Navy wanted him to do; and he loved his job."
The U.S.S. Cole was in the Port of Aden in Yemen for a routine fuel stop. That's when a small, inflatable boat packed with explosives approached the Navy vessel. Crew were lining up for their lunchtime meal when the blast occurred, hitting the galley and creating a 40ft. X 40ft. gaping hole on the port side of the ship.
On Friday, at Santiago's gravesite in Kingsville, the community made sure his ultimate sacrifice was honored and remembered on this solemn anniversary. Captain McLaughlin said the sacrifice that Santiago and others made that day should never be forgotten.
"We are still the greatest nation in the world, and people will always attack this way of life," McLaughlin said. "That's why we need a strong military, and that will not go away. We will have a strong Navy, and therefore we always have to remember the attacks that have occurred against us, prepare for those as a military in the future, and let the people know that we're here to protect them."
Santiago was only two months shy of completing his four-year enlistment with the Navy when the terrorist attack happened.
The other Texan from the Coastal Bend who was onboard that day, fireman Gary Graham Swenchonis, Jr., also died in the attack. Information systems technician seaman Timothy Lee Gauna of Rice, TX, also died in the attack.
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