By Heidi Welte:
On Sunday, 09 October, the USS Mason had two missiles fired upon her off the coast of Yemen. Both missiles missed their target and according to the ship’s Commanding Officer, onboard defensive measures were effectively and successfully deployed. The missiles are believed to have been fired from Houthi controlled territory, but Houthi rebels deny responsibility for the attack and Houthi controlled news stations state that the reports are baseless and are aimed at covering up a Saudi airstrike which killed 155 people. USS Mason was 12 miles off the coast in international waters. Until the recent airstrike, the US backed a Saudi-led coalition aimed at preventing Houthi rebels, allied with Iran, from taking power in Yemen, but the US is reevaluating her continued support. The civil war in Yemen has been vastly overshadowed by events elsewhere in the world, such as the ongoing civil war in Syria. It began in March 2015 when Houthi rebels drove out the US backed government and took over the capital. Yemen’s economic capacity is one of the many casualties of war, alongside about ten thousand people killed in the fighting and millions in need of aid.
Attacks on US ships in the middle east are nothing new. Tripoli – in modern day Libya – declared war on the United States in 1801 and in 1803, Bainbridge ran his ship, the frigate Philadelphia, aground and his crew, himself, and his ship were captured. In much more recent history, in 1987 the USS Stark was hit by two Exocet missiles fired from an Iraqi aircraft. This attack was simply a case of mistaken identity – the MiG, seeing the blip on the radar, thought the Stark was a tanker and opened fire – but purposefully or otherwise, thirty-seven sailors were killed in action as a result. in 1988, the Samuel B Roberts struck a mine which blew a 30 by 23 feet hole in the side. There were serious injuries, but no sailors were killed and they were able to save their ship. And most infamously, the USS Cole was attacked on 12 October 2000, less than a year before the fateful attacks on 11 September 2001, and while refueling in Yemen.
These attacks, in history and in the recent news, remind me of my own service. I was in the Navy for five years, from 2006 to 2011. I joined right out of high school, unable to join after the September 11th attacks due to the fact that at the time of the attacks, I was only 13. I picked the Navy for several reasons: San Diego, my hometown, has a dominating naval presence so it was familiar, it seemed to be safer than joining a different branch of the military – how wrong that reasoning was – and Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October made me fall in love with submarine warfare and I wanted to be the character in the book who is a sonar technician aboard a submarine, the USS Dallas. But women were not yet allowed to serve aboard submarines, so I became a sonar technician (surface), or STG. Upon completing my initial training, I was sent to the Arleigh Burke class destroyer Donald Cook, three weeks before an epic deployment to the Mediterranean and Black seas. Several times weekly, we conducted general quarters drills, one of which simulated a missile attack. Being an STG, my general quarters, or GQ, station was in sonar control in the forward most part of the ship and my job was to sit and wait for the drill to be over because nobody needed sonar techs to fend off a simulated missile attack. So we passed the time and listened to the actions taken by our shipmates in CIC (Combat Information Center) as they fought the ship, prepared for the real thing that we all hoped would never happen. My shipmates and I were all very lucky, during my tenure aboard the Donald Cook, our GQ alarm never had to sound in grim earnest to fend off an attack that may very well have claimed some of our lives. Only once did we have a close call. During a steel beach picnic, we nearly had to go to GQ over a small boat rapidly approaching the vessel off the coast of Virginia. Fortunately, communication was established with said vessel. It was piloted by an innocent civilian and his friends who were simply out having fun and who meant no harm but after the USS Cole incident, we now must be suspicious of all vessels acting in such a manner unless proven otherwise. One time, the potential for danger came from the Second World War. We pulled into Batumi, Georgia, on the black sea for a port visit. Her waters had been mined during WWII and not all of them had yet been found. The channel in and out of the port was regularly swept for mines, but just to be sure, my most experienced fellow sonar techs manned sonar control searching for potential mines while the rest of us, including myself, stood topside in the foggy morning acting as lookouts. We never found, or hit, any but remembering history and knowing how much damage can easily be wrought upon destroyers and other such small ships, informally called small boys by the Navy, this potential danger was rightly taken very seriously. Destroyers and other small boys have also been called tin cans because, unlike the battleships and heavy cruisers of old, they are not armored. A single mine, a single missile, a single boat filled with terrorists on a suicidal attack, can do a great deal of damage. There is nowhere to hide on a ship in case of attack. there are no buildings to provide cover and there are no foxholes one can dig. If my ship had been attacked in earnest as the USS Mason was so recently, I would have had to fight my ship and man my battle station even if it had meant injury – or my own death. I know the crew of the USS Mason must have been nervous to say the least, and for the sake of my shipmates and their families, I am glad no harm came to them as a result of this attack, and doubly glad that I never had to find out personally how well chaff really works and if our Cwis guns (a type of Gatling gun) could actually shoot a missile out of the sky before it hits us.
Heidi Welte is an OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Navy veteran.