Cole Commander Meets With Relatives

Monday, February 5th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

ENNIS, Texas (AP) — The captain of the USS Cole came to a small Texas town to tell a grieving mother, ``I'm sorry.''

Four months after terrorists bombed the Cole in the Middle East, killing 17 sailors, Cmdr. Kirk Lippold is visiting the families of the victims to offer condolences and answer questions.

Sunday, he and Master Chief James Parlier came to Ennis to visit Sarah Gauna, mother of bombing victim Tim Gauna.

``I never thought in my wildest dreams that my son would be a hero,'' Ms. Gauna said in Monday's editions of The Dallas Morning News. ``My son is a hero.'' She cried and clutched a photo of her son.

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

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 said.

The Gauna family met in private with Lippold and Parlier for about two hours. Ms. Gauna had brought a 4-inch-thick binder of documents about the explosion, with passages highlighted to remind her of questions to ask.

The Cole was bombed by suicide terrorists in a small boat Oct. 12 while the destroyer was refueling at the port of Aden, Yemen. Lippold, who left the meeting without comment, has been criticized by some victims' families.

``I told him I don't think he should be a commander of a ship anymore,'' Ms. Gauna said.

An investigation concluded that military officials from the top down bear ``collective responsibility'' for lax security, so the ship's captain and crew were not punished.

After the visit, Ms. Gauna felt some compassion for Lippold.

``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.''

She said she visits her son's grave daily and is still fighting with the Navy to reclaim his personal items, including a baseball glove and a cross.

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