Mona Gunn was settling in for the day as the principal of Fairlawn Elementary School in Norfolk on Oct. 12, 2000, when her private phone line rang.
Her sister called early in the morning to ask what ship her 22-year-old son Cherone was stationed aboard. It was USS Cole (DDG 67).
“She said ‘It’s in the news’,” Gunn said.
The Cole had been attacked by terrorists while in port in Yemen, and cable news stations were broadcasting reports as they came in. Gunn hung up the phone and ran across the hall to the school library so she could find a television and learn what happened.
“There on CNN was a picture of the ship with a forty-foot hole and it said ‘Four killed.’ That was the initial report, that they had four that were killed,” she said. “And my heart sank.”
Gunn let her boss know she needed to leave. Families of Cole Sailors were gathering at Naval Station Norfolk to get more details about what happened, who was injured and who didn’t survive the attack.
As she waited with others who had loved ones on the Norfolk-based ship, she prayed that her mother’s intuition was wrong and Cherone was fine. Cherone was one of her four sons, and the only one to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Navy.
Her husband Lou had served for 21 years and never experienced anything like what happened to the Cole. She expected her son to have a good naval career and then maybe go to college afterward when he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.
But Cherone never got the chance. At Naval Station Norfolk, Navy officials told Gunn that Cherone didn’t survive.
“It's devastating. You're not supposed to bury your child, lose your child at 22 years old,” she said.
“He had gone into the Navy in January 2000 and his career ended in October 2000. So he only spent nine months in the Navy. We were so proud (of his service.)”
All told, 17 Sailors were killed in the attack.
Cherone was a seaman who had only been assigned to the Cole as a signalman a few months before it deployed. But he loved his job. He frequently talked with his father about work.
He was close with his family and his friends. He grew up in Virginia Beach and made sure to see as many people as he could before his deployment.
“He took time to visit all his friends, family, Godparents and everybody he could all before he left for deployment. ‘You’re going to miss me’ is what he would say. I said, ‘Yep, I’ll miss you. But you’ll be back.’ You know, his daddy came back from a few deployments that he had.”
Like others who lost loved ones, the Gunn family was consumed by grief in the wake of the attack.
“People don't realize how much a death can change the lifestyle of a family, especially a father, that loses a son,” Lou Gunn said in a YouTube video in 2011 before his own death. “Because my wife always said, you know, ‘Like father, like son.’ … It really hit me.”
Lou Gunn said it meant a lot to him that Cherone followed in his footsteps. It remains important to the Gunn family to tell Cherone’s story so he can be remembered as they remember him.
“He was also the kind of guy that will see the neighbor across the street, a married couple with two kids who never ever had a chance to go out on a date,” his older brother Anton Gunn said in another video on YouTube. “He would volunteer to babysit the six and seven year olds so mom and dad can go out on a date. You know, what 21 year old does that?”
Cherone was born on Valentine’s Day, which his mother said is appropriate for his sweet and loving nature.
He had always volunteered to help out others, whether it was people in the office at his high school or in the community. Serving came as natural to him as cracking a broad smile or singing karaoke with his shipmates.
A natural entertainer, he especially loved to sing Michael Jackson songs. His smile was ever present.
The desire to keep memories of loved ones alive is one of the reasons Mona Gunn became so involved with American Gold Star Mothers, a support and community service group for people like her who have lost a child who served.
This past year, she served as the organization’s national president. She said everyone grieves in their own way on their own time. But she wants others to know support is available.
“The biggest thing is when you have a relationship with someone who’s on this journey, in experiencing this same journey, who got that knock at the door, who’ve had to bury a child, there’s a level of comfort when you know that you’re not out there alone,” she said. “There are others in this world who have been dealt that blow. So that’s the first important thing for other mothers to know. You’re not alone.”
On the 20th anniversary of the attack, Gunn will return to the Cole where survivors and family members who lost loved ones will reunite once again.
There, she can look around and know that she is not alone, that her son is not forgotten.