In October; terrorists bombed the USS Cole in Adden, Yemen, killing 17 U.S. Navy sailors and injuring more than 39. LT. Cartus Thornton, an Assemblies of God Navy chaplain, had been aboard the Cole for several weeks en route to the Persian Gulf. One week before the attack Thornton was assigned to another ship in the Destroyer Squadron 22 as part of his regular rotation. After the bombing, the Navy sent Thornton back to the USS Cole to minister to the demoralized crew. Thornton spoke with Kirk Noonan, from the deck of the Cole as the crew prepared the vessel for transport back to the United States.
Question: Describe the mood of the crew when you returned to the USS Cole.
Thornton: I boarded the ship five days after the blast. It was very hard to get back to the Cole because of the intense security. On board, the crew was very somber and morale was low. They were still in shock because some of their shipmates were still entombed in the wreckage. When bodies were recovered, we would have a ceremony where the crew would line up on the starboard side of the ship. Body bags were draped with an American flag, then the captain and I would lead the escorts to the bow of the ship where the bodies were then taken to the airplane.
The crew is dealing with a lot of things. But there was a visible sigh of relief when the last body was recovered. The sailors were glad their shipmates had begun their trip home.
Question: What are some of the issues the crew is grappling with?
Thornton: With this close brush with death many of these sailors' eyes were open to the things that are beyond the here and now. They are looking seriously at issues - especially life's brevity. That has given me many opportunities to share the gospel. Because we are still in dangerous waters there is also a certain amount of trepidation. But the majority of questions I have been asked pertain to life after death.
Question: How have you ministered to the crew?
Thornton: Ministry here is more or less giving the sailors an opportunity to express their feelings and deal with their anger, helplessness and frustration. We are having Bible studies as well as Sunday services. I also conducted a memorial service for the fallen sailors. The sailors have a lot of questions so I direct them to the Scriptures and the comfort and care that only God can give at a time like this. Many want to recommit their lives to Christ. Within counseling sessions I direct them to make things right with God.
Question: Did anything good come from this tragedy?
Thornton: This crew has really bonded, which makes a much stronger crew. Many personal relationships have also been restored. Some sailors have come to me who were contemplating a certain course in life and are now reconsidering their decision. Many of these sailors are figuring out what is really important and what their priorities are and should be. Of course, that not only directs them to God, but also helps them deal with the situation day in and day out.
Question: You've been at sea for four months. Are the sacrifices a military chaplain has to make worth it?
Thornton: The last time I talked to my wife I told her, "For such a time as this," Being here now, when I am needed the most, makes it all worthwhile. It is its own reward to minister to this crew. God has blessed me with the opportunity to serve Him here and now.
Question: How can our readers help you and the crew of the USS Cole?
Thornton: Through hundreds of letters, calls and e-mails, people have told us they are praying for us.
That heightens the consciousness of the crew about who God is. Those prayers have also afforded me the opportunity to reach out and talk about God, salvation and Jesus Christ. Just to know so many people are praying means the world to us.
"Reprinted from Pentecostal Evangel by permission".