About a month into his first tour of duty in the Navy, Hutchinson resident Ken Bower experienced what he describes as both a living hell and an act of God.
The then-25-year-old was a member of the crew on the USS Cole when it came under terrorist attack Oct. 12, 2000, in a port off Yemen.
As the 20th anniversary of the attack rolled around on Monday, Bower said much of it remains as vivid now as it was on that day and the ones that followed.
But he now relies on his wife, three children and a dog name Keno to get him through.
A graduate of Dodge City High, Bower couldn’t wait to join the Navy to see the world. He originally planned on joining the Air Force, Bower said, but a discussion with a cousin in the Air Force instead landed him at sea.
After completing basic and then training at the Navy’s gas turbine and electrical technical school in Great Lakes, Ill., his first ship assignment was the Cole, which he boarded from the island of Malta on Sept. 5, 2000.
The morning of Oct. 12, their ship pulled into the Port at Aden to take on fuel. They’d been doing so for about two hours when a small fishing boat loaded with some 2,000 pounds of explosives pulled up alongside the ship and detonated its cargo in a suicide mission, blowing a 40-foot hole into the side of the destroyer.
The terrorist organization al-Qaeda was blamed for the blast, which killed 17 sailors and seriously injured another 39.
Bower suffered permanent disability from the explosion. The extent of his injuries, however, which included traumatic brain, shoulder and back injuries, weren’t clear at the time. He finished his initial four-year enlistment, but has been struggling since.
That October morning, he’d been posted to watch the refueling, to make sure there was no overflow and to signal when to stop. A half-hour into his two-hour watch, Bower said, another sailor was sent up to replace him.
He was angry at his duty officer, GSM I Kathy Lopez, for the switch, since he’d have to take another full two-hour watch later.
He never got an explanation for the move, but he believes it saved his life.
As did circumstances that altered his location on the ship over the next half hour.
"It was a total act of God," Bower said. "It’s the only reason I’m here."
While he watched the refueling, Bower said, he was standing near the side of the ship, next to the refueling pipe. The man who replaced him, Petty Officer Raymond Mooney, chose a different location to stand, farther in on the ship and thus further from the eventual blast. He took shrapnel to the face and temporarily lost his sight, but Mooney also survived.
"I was right over the blast zone," Bower said. "I would have been instantly killed."
After being relieved from his post, Bower went to talk to Lopez, who apologized. He doesn’t recall exactly why, but he walked off in the middle of their conversation, Bower said, and went to the main deck and then the chow line.
Standing in line, Bower said, he looked down and realized he was still in his overalls, which were speckled with paint. That was unacceptable dress for the chow line and, though the officers who do inspections were not on duty, "a voice in my head," Bower said, "told me to change."
That removed him from the center of the ship, which took the brunt of the blast.
He returned to his berth and was there in mid-dress when the explosion occurred, sending him bouncing off the metal bunks.
"I remember coming to," Bower said. "I don’t know how I got dressed. I blacked out again and found myself on the main deck in a daze. It was smoky, pitch dark; the battle lanterns were on."
He next remembers being on the topside weather deck, where he heard what sounded like a shotgun going off and he hit the deck. Bower said that brought him out of his daze and adrenaline kicked in. He then went to the aid of other crewmembers, many of whom had lost limbs and some he watched die, despite best efforts.
"I remember watching an 18-year-old die four times in front of me," Bower said, as three times he was resuscitated by others performing CPR before they gave up. "It was basically the closest thing to being in hell. It was just all screams, and the smell was just horrendous."
Besides the immediate aftermath of the explosion, not knowing who had attacked them, they didn’t know who trust. But they had to take the wounded to local hospitals for treatment until military aid could arrive. He recalls going to the hospital to donate blood, being terrified at being exposed, and then shocked by conditions in the hospital.
After returning to the ship, they worked 96 continuous hours, fighting fires, pumping out water and making temporary repairs to the listing vessel to try to save the ship.
"We didn’t have any type of U.S. forces for 36 hours," he said. "We were sitting ducks, dead in the water."
"We came close to losing her quite a few times," Bower said of the ship. "I probably could have gotten off because my shoulder and back, but the adrenaline was so intense the only thing you could do was push the pain away."
The temperatures in the region on the unpowered ship – and resulting smells from spoiling food, spilled fuel and the dead – Bower said, were nearly unbearable, and certain smells today trigger memories.
After three weeks, the ship was able to be towed away and all the sailors were assigned new duty stations, Bower said. He spent the next year on land. When it came time to go back to sea, he struggled.
"Essentially the only thing you’re doing on a ship is practice, practice, practice," Bower said.
But those activities stirred memories, and he often found himself unable to properly respond.
"We’d be doing abandoned ship drills … and I’d be an empty shell because I was gone," he said. "When I’d snap out of it, I’d ask what was going on. My shipmates would make fun of me."
He was eventually diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He finished his four-year duty, but was not allowed to re-enlist despite a desire to do so, Bower said.
""Things have gotten a lot better," he said. "But I still have issues."
Nightmares interrupt his sleep. He sometimes deals with deep depression. Fireworks make him jump.
He’s had two surgeries on his shoulder and needs a full shoulder replacement, but is reluctant to proceed. He’s also had ACL surgery, can’t stand for long periods because of his knees. Combined with his PTSD, Bower said, he can’t find work.
Today, Bower is part of Midwest Battle Buddies, an organization that trains and donates service dogs to other disabled veterans. His dog, Keno, a Siberian husky/malamute, went through the training and is now his key support.
"This dog reads me," Bower said. "He knows if I’m not feeling good or down in the dump and he won’t leave me alone."