CAPE MAY — Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Ruggiero knew something was amiss. The unmarked boat was sitting too low in the water. The outboards were spewing out exhaust, working hard just to push the boat though the Persian Gulf waters off Basra, Iraq.
Ruggiero began telling the story Tuesday afternoon at Training Center Cape May as a new barracks was named after his Coast Guard shipmate who died that day, April 24, 2004, becoming the first Coastie to die in combat since the Vietnam War.
Bruckenthal Hall was named for Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal in a ceremony that drew his shipmates, family members and high-ranking Coast Guard brass including Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert Papp.
On that fateful day, Ruggiero, 23, of Boston, and Bruckenthal, 24, of Long Island, were friends who had trained together and were teaching Navy sailors about boarding techniques. Those techniques would then face a suicide mission from al-Qaeda terrorists trying to blow up an oil terminal.
The boat, about 30 to 35 feet, looked new. It had a new paint job and didn’t look anything like the wooden fishing boats called dhows that normally plied the waters in the Persian Gulf. The dhows usually had anywhere from 5 to 15 people on deck, but this boat appeared to only have one person navigating it.
Ruggiero and Bruckenthal were in a small inflatable boat, along with five U.S. Navy sailors, patrolling the waters near the Khawr Al Amaya Oil Terminal. Part of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to keep the oil flowing to help the country economically, Papp said.
“Ninety five percent of Iraqi revenue comes from oil from these two platforms and we were trying to get Iraq back on its feet,” Papp said.
The crew pulled alongside the vessel using hand signals to inform the driver to stop. He sped away, turned and then went straight toward the oil terminal at full speed. The 17-foot inflatable intercepted the boat before the oil platform when the “suicide boat” exploded.
Ruggiero saw it coming.
“At the very last second, when you know something is wrong, the hair on the back of your neck stands up. I knew right before it detonated,” he said.
Ruggiero, who still has metal and glass in his neck and face, said the al-Qaeda terrorists had lined the hull with three-quarter-inch steel and put explosives on top, the idea being to get under the oil platform and detonate the explosion upward.
The explosion flipped the inflatable and sent all seven of them into the water. Ruggiero, bleeding from his face and arm, with his eardrums ruptured, pulled the lanyard on his life jacket and heard air escaping. It was then that he noticed it was in shreds.
Ruggiero reached Bruckenthal first and found he had severe head injuries.
“He was going in an out of consciousness. He talked but his tone was very low and slow,” said Ruggiero.
Ruggiero put Bruckenthal on his chest and swam him to what was left of the inflatable. He also retrieved Navy Petty Officer 1st Class A.R. Daley, who lived, and Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Pernaselli, who was face down in the water and already dead when Ruggiero got to him. A third casualty was Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher E. Watts.
The effort prevented the attempt to blow up the oil platform.
Bruckenthal was picked up by the Navy patrol craft USS Firebolt but by then Ruggiero said he had stopped talking and was fading. Bruckenthal was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal and Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. He and Ruggiero were the first Coast Guardsmen to be awarded the Purple Heart since the Vietnam War.
Bruckenthal was remembered Tuesday for making the ultimate sacrifice.
“He was a fun guy to be around. A fun person to work and celebrate life with,” Ruggiero said.
Bruckenthal, who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, graduated from Coast Guard boot camp in Cape May in 1999 and went into the rating of “damage controlman,” which usually means doing things such as fighting fires, but was working for a Tactical Law Enforcement Team in Iraq.
Tuesday was exactly 14 years to the day that his company, November 154, graduated from Training Center Cape May boot camp. It was day in which a black granite monument with his picture etched into it would be dedicated outside the newly named Bruckenthal Hall.
“What purpose do these memorials serve?” Papp asked in a short speech.
“Looking back to those who served helps looking forward to the obligation that lies ahead. We can be sure he will long be remembered. That’s the mortar that holds these memorials and our service together.”
Eric Bruckenthal, the police chief in Northport, N.Y., and Bruckenthal’s father, said it is fitting that new recruits will learn who his son was.
“It continues the legacy of Nate. Every recruit that comes in this place will know who he is. He would be pleased to know his sacrifice was not in vain,” said Bruckenthal.
It also is meaningful to Bruckenthal’s widow, Pattie, and daughter, Harper, who was born after his death but who calls his gravemarker at Arlington “Daddy’s stone.”
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