Painful visit: Meeting with Cole commander offers small solace to mother of Texan who died

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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ENNIS – Monday was the day Tim Gauna was supposed to come home.

The Navy had scheduled a little shore time for the 21-year-old, time for him to play sandlot baseball, see his family and impress his friends with tales of adventure. He was going to be back for his mother’s birthday.

Instead, Sarah Gauna got a less-welcome visit Sunday. Two men from her son’s ship, the USS Cole, came to this small Ellis County town and tried to do the impossible: comfort her, console her and answer her unanswerable questions.

Seaman Gauna was one of the 17 sailors killed Oct. 12 when suicide bombers attacked the Cole in Yemen.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams that my son would be a hero,” Ms. Gauna said, crying and tightly clutching a photo of her son. “My son is a hero.”

Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, the Cole’s captain, and Master Chief James Parlier are visiting the families of the 17 victims to offer condolences and provide whatever answers they can about the attack. Ms. Gauna was armed with dozens of questions, many about mistakes she believed the commander made that helped make the bombing possible.

When the men arrived at the home of Seaman Gauna’s uncle, James, Ms. Gauna kept them waiting for a few minutes before agreeing to see them. She hugged Master Chief Parlier, who had known her son on board the ship, then moved to the commander.

Cmdr. Lippold reached out to hug her, but she hesitated. After he wrapped his arms around her, she began to cry out: “Why Tim?”

“I’m sorry,” he half-whispered.

Her reply, muffled in his Navy dress blues: “Are you?”

“Yes, I am,” he answered.

Then the Gauna family met in private with Cmdr. Lippold and Master Chief Parlier for about two hours. Ms. Gauna had brought a 4-inch-thick binder of documents about the explosion, with dozens of passages highlighted to remind her of questions to ask. But her tears prevented her from asking many.

In any event, she said, she didn’t expect honest answers. “I told him, ‘You’ll never give me the truth.’ I don’t trust anybody. I don’t trust the government, the Navy people,” she said after the meeting.

Cmdr. Lippold, who left the meeting without comment, has been criticized by the victims’ families and a Navy investigation for failing to carry out security measures before the Cole docked in Yemen, a country linked to terrorist activity. But when the investigation was closed last month by Defense Department officials, Cmdr. Lippold was not disciplined, in part because investigators found he had not been properly informed about the potential threat.

Ms. Gauna is not as generous. “I told him I don’t think he should be a commander of a ship anymore,” she said. “I told him that to his face.”

She first heard from the commander in a phone call shortly after the attack; she was so enraged she hung up on him. He offered to visit her at home, and she found him to be more sorrowful than she had expected.

“We were talking about how he played baseball and the funeral, and he started crying. He asked for a tissue. He said, ‘That’s what makes me cry, when I hear how other people cared about him.'”

Ms. Gauna is still fighting for her son, almost four months after his death. She battles with the Navy to reclaim his personal effects, including a baseball glove and a cross. She battles with the maintenance crew at the local cemetery where her son is buried, when they’re too quick to remove the fresh roses she leaves him every day. She battles with emotions she says only 16 other mothers can understand.

“We try to shut one door, and another one opens,” said James Gauna, Seaman Gauna’s uncle. “And each one gets harder to close.”

Every day, Ms. Gauna visits her son’s grave and reads Bible passages to him. “He tells me, ‘You’re doing good, Mom, you’re doing good,'” she said. “I know now I’m going to heaven to be with him.”

After Sunday’s meeting, the mother and the commander were an inch or two closer to an understanding, if not a truce.

“When he came in, he hugged me, but I couldn’t hug him,” she said. “But when he was leaving, I did hug him. Because he is hurting. Not in the same way we are, but he is hurting.”