‘My world’s been shattered’: Family of Mechanicsville Navy Sailor killed in USS Cole Terror Attack relives past 20 years

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MECHANICSVILLE, Va. (WRIC) — Monday marks 20 years since terrorists attacked the USS Cole in Yemen. The bombing left 17 sailors dead and many more hurt.

Commemoration events were held on Monday in Norfolk, where the recovered Navy ship is now docked, and in Washington D.C. to honor those who were killed, Gold Star families and the crew who fought to save the ship.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, both ceremonies were held virtually and live-streamed to the public. A moment of silence was held at 11:18 a.m., mirroring the time of the blast.

Three Virginians lost their lives in the attack; James Rodrick McDaniels of Norfolk, Timothy Lamont Saunders of Ringgold, and Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter of Mechanicsville.

Kenneth Clodfelter is still being remembered 20 years later in Hanover, the county where he was born and raised. In his first interview, the Navy sailor’s brother, Joseph Clodfelter, sat down with 8News to share what life has been like since the deadly terrorist attack.

“Nothing’s been the same,” Clodfelter said as he wiped away tears. “My world’s been shattered. Twenty years feels like yesterday. People always say time heals – well it doesn’t.” 

Two decades have passed and Clodfelter is still haunted by images from a grim day in U.S Navy history. October 12, 2000, at 11:18 a.m., the USS Cole stopped at a Yemen harbor to refuel when suicide bombers, strapped with up to 700 pounds of explosives, attacked the missile destroyer.

Twenty-one-year-old Kenneth Clodfelter, a Hull Maintenance Technician, was missing and presumed dead.

“They told me that my brother was missing and I fell to the ground,” recalled Clodfelter. “I have never broken down like that in my life.”

The powerful blast tore a 40-by-60 foot hole in the ship and sent shockwaves across the world, appearing on the front page of newspapers and headlining national news outlets.

“This is what I see every single day in my dreams at night,” shared Clodfelter as he held an archived newspaper that shows the gaping hole left in the USS Cole.

“Basically he was standing right on the other side of the hole,” Clodfelter explained while holding up the newspaper and showing Kenneth’s position in the ship during the explosion. “He was the first one that pretty much got killed.”

The Clodfelter family home is tucked away in a quaint Mechanicsville neighborhood and is filled with generations of military service. Upon entry, an American flag is soars in the front lawn and a soldier cut-out kneels by the white picket fence.

Kenneth graduated from Lee Davis High School and enlisted in the U.S Navy at 18 years old. Kenneth’s father is an Army Veteran, serving in the Vietnam War, and Clodfelter is a Marine.

In his first interview since the bombing, Clodfelter relived the attack and said it’s hard for him to talk about his emotions.

“It’s really hard having to go through everything, ” Clodfelter cried. After a few deep breaths he went on to whimper, “I just keep saying please come home, come through that front door, I just want to see him again.”

Clodfelter would never see his brother again – Kenneth was the last sailor to be found and pulled from the devastating wreckage. As injured sailors returned to American soil, 17 families were hit with the anguish of the ‘ultimate sacrifice as their caskets returned home.

In an interview with 8News 20 years ago, Gloria Clodfelter, Kenneth’s mother, cried at the sight of her son’s casket. Not only did Kenneth leave behind a loving family, but also his 2-year-old son, Noah.

“When I saw his coffin laying there with a flag on it… I just wish they would let me open,” said Gloria. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

Kenneth’s parents were heartbroken by the sudden death of their son. Clodfelter said the news took a toll on their health. Gloria passed in 2018 and John, Kenneth’s father, is now in a nursing home suffering from dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

However, John pushed for the memory of his son and the other 16 sailors to never be forgotten. He told 8News years ago, “The Cole is not going to be forgotten, as long as I’ve got a breath in my body.”

Over the years, John pushed for a special USS Cole license plate in Virginia, which he had to jump through several political and legal hoops to get accomplished.

Kenneth is buried at Arlington National Cemetery alongside two other shipmates, but his memory lives on every day in Mechanicsville. A bridge overlooking I-295 was dedicated to the Navy Hero in 2001.  

The Clodfelter family has created their own memorial in their basement filled with newspapers, photographs, flags and medals, including Kenneth’s Purple Heart that he was awarded posthumously.

“When I look at all his stuff down here, I just feel proud,” said Clodfelter. “But I also keep thinking what I could have done to protect him. He was my best friend, my idol and still is.”

Some say the bombing of the USS Cole foreshadowed the 9/11 terror attacks. Al Qaeda, an Islamic terrorist group, claimed responsibility for both attacks.

At a memorial service two decades ago President Bill Clinton stood in front of heartbroken families torn apart by this attack and bellowed, “We will find you and justice will prevail.”

Shaking as he speaks, Clodfelter says he is angry because a trial for the suspected mastermind behind the Cole bombing, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, is still ongoing 20 years later.

“They deserve better than that,” cried Clodfelter.

He goes on to share that he won’t stop fighting for justice for the 17 Navy heroes who carried out the creed of honor, courage and commitment.

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