WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – The Navy changed how it trains sailors after terrorists attacked a ship in Yemen and took 17 lives.
The branch is now preparing recruits to help the wounded, all while keeping a billion-dollar warship afloat.
Ken Bower’s father and grandfather were soldiers in the Army, and his cousin was in the Air Force.
His family convinced him to look into the Navy since it would provide many skills beyond service.
“I give 110% plus in everything I do,” Bower said.
He chose the Navy in the end.
He wanted to see the world, and he did just that until a day that forever changed his and many other sailors’ lives.
“We were like the main heart and soul of the ship.”
Bower was a gas turbine specialist.
“Next thing you know, here’s the USS Cole, and I am meeting it for the first time.”
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He joined the crew in Malta. His job was to keep the ship moving and to ensure there was electricity.
Bower had only been on board for a little over a month when they started to pull into Aden Harbor, Yemen, to refuel.
“I had a massive, horrible feeling at the pit of my gut, something in the spirit of Yemen that just wasn’t right,” he said. “I could sense the evil in the place.”
He expressed that feeling to his chief, who responded by saying Yemen was known for terrorism.
On Oct. 12, 2000, Bower was standing watch when he was relieved early. His replacement saw a boat approaching.
“He said they waved at him, he waved back, they saluted him, he saluted back, and he just thought it was one of the friendly locals.”
Bower said it wasn’t unusual for locals to approach the ship, as they would often pay them to offload trash.
The boat that approached that day was loaded with a makeshift torpedo and packed with explosives.
“They used 2,000 pounds of C4 to try to kill everybody on board,” he said. “It lifted the ship up out of the water.”
Every person on board was hurt in some way.
“It launched me like I was, like I was nothing, like just, like you’re throwing a ball,” Bower said.
The blast knocked him out, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury.
“Came to and was kind of dazed and trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”
He also hurt his back and ankle, but he still powered through to help the 39 sailors who were injured badly.
One of his buddies who he talked to earlier in the day died in the attack.
“I didn’t know that would be the last time we talked to him.”
Seventeen sailors died in the attack. Bower says he could have been one of the fatalities. Just 30 minutes to an hour before the attack, he was in the area where the explosion happened.
“If I would have stayed there, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
Instead, Bower was in his berthing area when the attack happened. He narrowly escaped with his life.
The crew spent four days fighting for the ship.
Bower said the guys always like to give each other a hard time, but that wasn’t the case when it counted.
“Everybody pulled together,” he said. “Everybody did what they were supposed to do. Trying to save the severely injured and trying to save the ship at the same time.”
Bower said it started with a bucket brigade because the water was rushing in. He said it looked like a waterfall.
The blast caused a massive hole in the destroyer.
“Sixty feet from top to bottom, 40 feet from left to right and 30 feet in.”
Bower said they had to get creative since they were standing in water and had to get it out.
“I came up with the idea, let’s knock a hole in the bulkhead here.”
They didn’t have any food or water for days, and he said they had to raid the ship’s store to get by. They also had no electricity, so the sailors slept on the flight deck.
“We were dead on water, and we were in this hot spot,” Bower said.
Old Glory continually flew on the ship’s mast, and the Marine flag was added in the days that followed.
The Marines were there for security while the sailors prepared the ship for the long voyage home.
“Waiting for someone to sneeze wrong, and then all hell would have broke loose.”
Bower said it was a tense three weeks before the USS Cole was stable and ready for transit on the Blue Marlin, a floating dry dock that slowly floated the ship home.
When it was finally time to restart the engines, Bower was the one in the control center.
“I was so honored that they actually picked me,” he said.
A strong message rang out from the USS Cole was towed from the port.
“Saying you can’t get us, suckers,” Bower said.
Patriotic music blared from the ship. Bower said their final song was a Kid Rock hit, “American Badass,” which didn’t please the captain but certainly flattered the celebrity.
“He just felt so honored and humbled that we picked his music. He ended up doing a benefit concert for us.”
When Kid Rock read about the sailors’ song choice, he came to meet the crew, take pictures, sign autographs and perform for the heroes.
He also raised tons of funds to help the families of the USS Cole.
Bower said he was impressed at how kind and patient the singer was, even signing about 12 autographs for Bower alone.
Something that truly means a lot to Bower is a small memento that came from the USS Cole while it was in for repairs in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
“That’s as much history as you can hold right there in your hand.”
Bower said each of the survivors has a piece, thanks to a stranger.
“One of the shipyard workers there decided let’s stamp this out and give it to the crew.”
Bower says each piece is an actual chunk of the bombing area.
Parts of the damaged area of the ship are also melted down into the USS Cole Memorial.
A place Bower and the other crew members can gather to remember the fallen from that fateful day, as well as their efforts that helped finally bring the destroyer home.
The memorial is located at Naval Station Norfolk.
There is a ceremony there each year, and Bower has attended some of those over the years.
He said he still keeps in contact with some of his fellow sailors on social media. He said it is extremely hard each year when the anniversary of the bombing comes around, so they tend to rely on one another to get through that time.
Bower said the day the USS Cole was attacked, he felt like his dreams and career blew up because he always dreamed of becoming a Navy Seal.
“When we got blown up, I got injured on board, and that kind of screwed everything up.”
He said signing up for service is something he will never forget.
“Being able to fight for our freedom.”
After the attack, Bower stayed in the Navy for four years and eight months, but he wasn’t deployable because of flashbacks to that horrible day and the injuries he suffered.
He ended up getting the assignment he originally wanted and worked with the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) class, a type of hovercraft used by the Navy.
Bower said he wanted to spend more time in service, but that plan didn’t work out.
He said he had superiors who tried to fight to keep him in, but the decision was far above their heads.
He now works with Midwest Battle Buddies, helping ensure veterans have correctly trained service dogs.
His dog was the very first trained, and he is proud the program now involves 45 veterans.
Between the injuries he suffered 21 years ago and the PTSD that followed, he said the organization helped him so much.
“They’ve helped me get my life back.”
If you would like more information about Midwest Battle Buddies, click here.
Bower was also granted an Honorary Life Membership at the VFW in Dodge City.