BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — “Before there was 9/11, there was 10/12.”
Retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bob Overturf, a 1987 graduate of Bowling Green High School, said those words are a reference to the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole by al-Qaida suicide bombers off the coast of Yemen. Overturf was part of the crew of nearly 300 and survived the blast that claimed the lives of 17 sailors.
“The U.S. had intelligence information that a U.S. Navy ship was being targeted by (Osama) bin Laden,” Overturf said.
Overturf lives in Virginia but returned to Bowling Green recently for a family visit and agreed to two interviews with the Daily News.
He credits ship Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold with preventing more loss of life.
“It was Cmdr. Lippold’s action that saved a lot of lives, his attitude and preventative actions when we pulled into Yemen because he took a lot of precautions ‘just in case’ based on that intel,” Overturf said.
The blast blew a 40- by 60-foot gash in the side of the ship.
Overturf said he had been in the area of the ship that sustained the blow just two minutes before the attack. He was 70 feet away when the explosion tore through the ship.
Battered and injured, the crew members spent the next day and a half working to save the ship.
“We had to fight for the next 36 hours to save our ship and save all we could on board the ship,” he said.
There were no waiting ambulances or firefighters to assist, only the shaken crew of the Cole.
“It took another 36 to 48 hours for another Navy ship to get to us. But even still we had to fight for the next 18 days to keep that ship afloat, to dig the bodies out of steel, to survive. No one can really comprehend what such hot temperatures in that part of the world can do when you’ve got tons of food and bodies rotting.
“You can’t do anything about it. We’re trying to save the ship and keep it afloat to get us out of there. With the heat, the smell became overpowering. Days and days and days later, other ships said they could smell us two miles away. The first three days into it, the embassy brings food and water and we all get dysentery from it. There is no calling in a sick day. You just have to work with poop in your pants. It could not have been any more humiliating, degrading or disgusting. It was a very long 18 days.
“By the end of those 18 days we had all kinds of people coming on board. After 18 days the Cole was taken out and lifted onto the motor vessel the Blue Marlin, which is a gigantic lift vessel. It’s like a tow truck at sea for other ships. The crew were offloaded onto the USS Iwo Jima,” he said.
Intelligence indicated after the attack that bin Laden wasn’t satisfied with the death toll of the Cole bombing, and Cole sailors were removed from Cole onto the Iwo Jima by small boats under the cover of darkness, he said. The Cole’s crew was then evacuated at night to a secret air base in the middle of a desert in another country and from there flown, once again at night, to Germany.
The military announced publicly the crew would be taken to a certain airstrip in Germany but instead they were flown to another, all in an effort to thwart another attack on the Cole’s crew.
Overturf played a critical role in saving the Cole and for his efforts he was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal by the Secretary of the Navy.
Shortly thereafter, they returned to the United States for 30 days’ leave.
“We reformed as a crew in an office building until we were slowly disbanded to other ships or commands,” he said.
That call was a “mistake” because the surviving shipmates lost their sense of family and the support system they developed to help one another through their shared trauma, he said.
Four months later, and haunted by the images brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder, Overturf was assigned to the USS Barry.
“I had no business being on that ship,” he said. “I had active hallucinations. I was a complete basket case with PTSD. I was completely out of my mind. I resented being reassigned off of the Cole, and I acted extremely disrespectfully to the captain and crew of the Barry. But they understood, and they embraced me and they took me in and got me through it, and I probably owed my life to them.”
A bigger purpose
Overturf signed with the Navy while he was still a junior at Bowling Green High School. He was looking to become part of something larger than himself.
“I wanted something more. I didn’t want to stay here and be like everybody else,” he said.
Seven days after he walked his high school graduation line, he left for basic training in Orlando, Fla. His original plan was to be a rescue swimmer. But his sinus passages disqualified him from that service. So instead the Navy sent him to the Navy Electronic Technician School, where he had to confront math.
“It turned out to be the best thing,” he said.
“I had always been a terrible, terrible student, specifically in math,” he said. “As a result I had low self-esteem in academics. When I got to Navy Electronic Technician School, the first thing we had to do was learn different types of algebra. The pressure was immense and the fear was incredible. I learned how to study for the first time.
“I found out that I had a brain.”
Once he completed training, instead of working in his field, the Navy sent him orders to be a security guard at the Naval Security Guard School in Lakehurst, N.J.
He was taught police investigations, emergency vehicle operations, self-defense, hand-to-hand combat and weapons training and was then sent to his first permanent duty station in Gaeta, Italy, where he served as a naval police officer for two and half years at the home port of the Navy’s Sixth Fleet.
“Most of my times there I worked as a military policeman and protective detail for the commander of the Sixth Fleet. I also did anti-terrorism counter-surveillance,” he said.
Still a fresh-faced teen barely out of high school, other officers with more experience treated him as an equal.
“Because I understood and appreciated that they gave me the ability to prove myself, I made sure not to mess that up,” he said. “It opened up opportunities for me to do some really important things like work with the commander of the Sixth Fleet or do counter-surveillance activities for the Naval Criminal Investigative Services.
One night he might be out looking for drunken sailors in bars, and the next he might be investigating burglaries or providing protective detail for the admiral of the Sixth Fleet.
It was during this first assignment that Overturf encountered death.
“Because of the terrain and the roads we dealt with a lot of traffic accidents and a lot of death,” he said. “I was that guy many times at 10 o’clock at night or two o’clock in the morning knocking on the door to tell them their wife or husband had just been killed.”
One incident that had the most profound effect on him in the military surprisingly occurred in Italy and not on the USS Cole.
“There was an incident in which a military member was with his family and he collapsed from a heart attack. I was the first responder and I was doing CPR on him until we could get him to the clinic. His 6-year-old daughter was at my side screaming and begging me to save her daddy and I couldn’t do it.
“It broke my heart.”
Overturf served two tours in Italy and served a one-year tour with the multinational forces in Iraq as a strategic planner under Gen. David Petraeus.
“I worked with the people who developed the plan to roll U.S. forces out of Iraq. I spent my first four months in IZ,” he said referring to the International Zone in central Baghdad.
“Every day and every night we would take mortar and rocket fire. There’s only so many times you can be woken up in the middle of the night to run and jump in a concrete bunker before you get pissed off and tired of it and you just don’t care.”
At that point, you just stay in bed and learn to live with the new normal, he said.
After serving in Iraq, Overturf attended the Naval War College, where he earned his master’s degree in national strategy and policy. One of his classmates was former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
In 2012, he graduated and went to Washington, D.C., where he worked at the Naval Sea Systems Command.
One year into his service at the Washington Navy Yard, on Sept. 16, 2013, a lone gunman opened fire in Building 197. Overturf had just bought breakfast in the cafeteria and sat down at his desk when he saw the worried faces of some civilian employees and started asking questions.
Then he heard the gunshots.
He and his former Cole shipmate Cmdr. Jason Grabelle ushered people out of the building to safety. That day, the gunman killed 12 people before he was killed.
Now enjoying retirement after 27 years of service to the country, Overturf lives with his grown daughter and offers encouragement for others new to the military.
“Believe in yourself. You’re capable of far more than you think you know. Don’t let the day to day drag you down. Set your sights on the future and never stop working to improve yourself.”
Information from: Daily News, http://www.bgdailynews.com