More than 200 troops and civilians gathered on the U.S. Navy base here Wednesday to honor the memory of three USS Firebolt crew members killed in a suicide attack 15 years ago.
Seven crew members set out from the Firebolt in an inflatable boat on April 24, 2004, to inspect fishing dhows lurking around protected Iraqi oil terminals in the Persian Gulf.
As the Americans approached, one of the vessels “made an abrupt maneuver” and set off an explosive, “inflicting serious casualties for all members aboard,” said Lt. Cmdr. Roger Young, Firebolt’s current skipper, speaking at the gathering.
Killed in the attack were Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Pernaselli, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher Watts and Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal.
“They paid the ultimate price in support of their mission,” Young said. “I am pleased to say that their example of selfless devotion to duty and to each other are alive and well among the crew that sails these waters today.”
Today, Firebolt is one of 10 Navy coastal patrol ships permanently deployed to Bahrain, along with six Coast Guard cutters.
The “fighting spirit” of the men who died 15 years ago lives on aboard the Firebolt, said 5th Fleet commander Vice Adm. James Malloy, who spoke at the ceremony and participated in a 5K memorial run that followed it.
Malloy told attendees that “there is no such thing as a routine mission” in the 5th Fleet theater.
“It is important that we revisit the Firebolt lesson and remember the brave servicemembers who lost their lives that day,” he said.
Reminders of the tragedy remain aboard the Firebolt, including a mess deck display of three stars and the names of the dead.
“We walk by it every day, we see that stuff,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Eastman, a current Firebolt coxswain who participates on inspection teams. “This hits home near and dear to me because I could be one of those sailors out there.”
Eastman added that the deaths remind him that any “easy day could be your last day.”
The memory of the fallen also hits home among the more than 250 Coast Guardsmen serving in Bahrain.
Bruckenthal, the first Coast Guardsman to die overseas since the Vietnam War, was recently honored with a fast response cutter, or FRC, commissioned in his name.
Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Nathan Michalski, a Bruckenthal plank owner who served on the commissioning team from 2016-2018, attended the ceremony and ran in the 5K.
“I always wanted to run a 5K and I just commissioned the Coast Guard FRC a couple months ago before my arrival here,” Michalski said. “If I was going to do it, this one right here would mean the most to me.”
Michalski, who met Bruckenthal’s family and learned about him from them, emphasized the tight-knit community of the Coast Guard.
“We’re such a small group that we come together when things like that happen, so showing our support was a great experience,” Michalski said.
Despite the deaths at the hands of terrorists posing as fishermen in 2004, Firebolt’s crew continues to “build relationships with fishermen,” a routine practice for all patrol ships, Young said.
“We go out there and we do what we call approach and assist,” Young said. “We let them know we’re in the area and we’re here to support them and anything that they need.”
Malloy praised the crew of the Firebolt and fellow patrol forces as “staples to the U.S. Navy presence in the Gulf,” and highlighted their capabilities and combat power.
“Our friends and our adversaries out here know that,” Malloy said.
© 2019 the Stars and Stripes
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