A MOTHER & HER SON SHARE A SPIRITUAL ODYSSEY

A MOTHER & HER SON SHARE A SPIRITUAL ODYSSEY by Dalton Narine

USS Cole survivor succumbed to a violent panic attack in bed a week after his 31st birthday, 12 years following a terrorist strike on the guided missile destroyer.

A memorial to a Navy son whose special bond between him and his mom comes into play when he’s wounded in the attack on Oct. 12, 2000 at the port of Aden in Yemen. At the hospital, the son would predict the 9/11 terrorist attack just so.

By DALTON NARINE

CANDLE OF HOPE: Johann Gokool, injured in the 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole, crosses his prosthetic leg leg and reads a get-well letter while his mother Liah Gokool recalls her premonition that Johann and his ship were in harm’s way. The destroyer was bombed and Johann eventually died in his sleep from a panic attack. (Photo: Carl Juste)

Johann Gokool passed away on December 23, 2009, after suffering a panic attack at his home in Homestead, Florida. Gokool, the Trinidadian-born Petty Officer Third Class, an electronic warfare technician on the Cole, was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following his recovery from wounds he received in October 2000 when terrorists struck the destroyer at the port of Aden in Yemen. Gokool was a dear friend who had been wracked by panic attacks for years after the explosion. It behooves me to tell his story.

On Sunday, Oct. 8, 2000, four days before the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in the Mideast, Liah Gokool got the first hint that disaster was about to strike her son and his ship. She was preparing for a day’s work as manager of the young men’s department at Burdines in Cutler Ridge, Miami. Suddenly, her left leg began to throb. The pain got so intense, Liah had to go home. An eerie anxiety set in. There was a special bond between her and her sailor son Johann and she knew she had to help him.

That Thursday, Oct. 12, Johann Gokool joined others waiting in the chow line, sniffing the spicy aroma of fajitas. He would never get a chance to load his tray. His ship was about to be blindsided by a small boat loaded with explosives. The attack would bring the Gokools, a close-knit Homestead family of six from Arima, Trinidad & Tobago, a twin-island republic at the very end of the Caribbean archipelago, even closer by the tragedy.
The blast killed 17 crew members and injured 39, including Johann. As it turned out, it was a prelude to the 9/11 assault on the US 11 months later that left some 3,000 people dead and 2,337 injured.
Every Memorial Day thereafter, as Liah and her then 20-year-old son pay homage to his lost colleagues, they’ll surely ponder the events of that devastating day and how their special bond — some might call it precognition while others will pooh-pooh it as coincidence — held sway even though they were 6,000 miles apart.
Johann Gokool, top, joins the Navy and serves on the USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer. Gokool, below, rests his prosthetic leg on his lap. Gokool lost his left leg in the terrorist blast on the Cole. (US NAVY)

By the time Liah gets home, the pain has traveled to her chest. She lights a candle, hoping to alter the Cole’s worrisome course.

She places the candle next to a photograph of Johann on a table in the living room.
Liah has a strong feeling that he’s going into a dark place and would need a light to see his way out.

 

As the leg pain increases, something else ramps up her fears: The day before the attack, a dining room chair lost its left front leg when her husband, Ramish, sat down for dinner.

“Ramish never sat on that particular chair,” Liah recalls. “I asked him why he was sitting there and he said he didn’t know.”

 

“It was as if it was cut by a laser,” Ramish remembers.

 

On Thursday, the day of the attack, Liah’s pain inexplicably stops. As a precautionary measure, she takes another day off. She decides to repaint her kitchen the color of the early-morning sun.

 

Meanwhile, with the Cole inching into port at Aden, Yemen, for refueling, Johann swings away from his computer to help moor the ship.
At 11:15, he and his friends troop down to the galley. The mess hall is situated just above the waterline on the starboard side of the ship. Refueling is underway on the post side.
As Johann waits in the chow line, he hears a thumping sound. Not to worry, it’s just a tug boat collecting the trash.

Seconds later, at 11:18, the terrorists strike.

 

“When the explosion went off,” Johann says, everything was in slow motion, like a movie. My body spun around and I could smell smoke and fuel.”
He catapulted forward. Then hell opened up and sucked him down four stories into a black hole. At that point, not unlike a call-and-response chant, a synchronization of events worlds apart began.

In Homestead, Johann’s sister Natala turns on the TV in the living room. Smoke billows from a 40-foot gash in the side of the Cole. The ship is afire and Liah is losing it.

The nerve of CNN. There’s no news of her son. So she dashes to her car and heads for Homestead Air Reserve Base, but gets lost and shoots back home.

 

Liah turns to God. Now she begins to feel her son. She knows exactly where he is, in some dark pit at the bottom of the ship. The leg pain slams home with a vengeance. She interprets it as a sign that both his legs are mangled. Moreover, his head is bloodied and his skin burned because now her own skin is highly sensitive. She envisions him dragging himself. She must help him, like that time back in Trinidad when a snake crawled into his crib. An odd cooing from her infant’s room alerted her.

Johann, out cold and sprawled on his stomach in the engineering room, wakes up after a half hour. He can’t get up. His legs won’t work.

 

He feels compelled to crawl toward light, any light. He finds an escape trunk, a long tube with a four-story metal ladder.

Live wires and a huge slice of metal dangle menacingly. When he attempts to climb the ladder, he notices his left ankle bone protruding from his tattered boot. The flesh is burned off. The right ankle is the size of a grapefruit. He pats the left leg. “Well, that will never work again.”

 

He’s a bloody mess, this young man whose chiseled good looks reflects the multi-ethnic blend of his birthplace. His Hindu father, Ramish, 61, and French Creole mother, Liah, 52, whose brother is a Catholic priest in Carapichaima, Trinidad, are testament to the admixture. (Ramish and Liah have three other children: Angelo, 32; Natala, 30; and Hamish, 23. Liah’s eldest, Owen Paponette is 35 and runs a construction business in north Florida.)

Johann climbs the ladder via reverse chin-ups, curling each rung and hoisting himself arduously, inch by inch. It’s a struggle just to hang on.
“I can’t die here. I don’t want to die here.”

As is common with near-death adventures, snippets of his life are supposed to float through his mind: The camaraderie with his best pal, Ronald Owens. The excruciating headaches as a teen that drove him to his room to sketch Hindu deities. Drawing whole species of sharks to slake his thirst for marine biology. The long-distance relationship with his girlfriend that never worked out.

 

 

Instead, his thoughts turn to family ties, including golden moments with his grandmother Elaine Paponette; his shipmates, too, and old classmates. That’s how he passes the half-hour ascent. But there is no light to greet him when he gets to the top.

Warped by the explosion, the door is jammed shut. He bangs and yells until rescuers break down the door and drag him out into the sunlight.

“He looked like crap and his feet were all jacked up,” says Dyson Foster, of Houston, a fire-control man who suffered severe back injuries during the rescue.
A week later, Johann is convalescing at the Naval Medical Centre Portsmouth in Norfolk, Virginia. Doctors tell his family that gangrene in his foot is spreading. His condition deteriorating.
CLOSE SIBLINGS: Natala Gokool, center, spent a month at her brother Johann’s bedside while recuperating from a severed leg following a terrorist attck on the USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen. Johann died from a panic attack related to PTSD and other wounds he received during the attack. (Carl Juste)

With her son in jeopardy again, Liah seeks help from the Virgin Mary; Ramish offers prayers to her Hindu counterpart, Lakshmi, the goddess who stands for good over evil, light over darkness. Fr. Paponette holds Mass in Johann’s name at his parish. Students at Southridge High School in Miami, Johann’s alma mater, write inspirational letters.

 

But no one dared tell him about the fate of his best pal, who was blown to pieces. Besides, the expression on the face of President Clinton, one of his special bedside visitors, clued him in that he was in bad shape.

“The president held my hand,” Johann says, “and told me to hang in there. I told him not to worry, that I’d make it, and to prove it, I’d open a nightclub and he’d be the first musician I’d invite so he could watch me dance on one leg while he played the sax. I mean, I was on morphine at the time.”
He heard about his best friend, and when darkness fell, cried through the night.
Things got better after doctors amputated the leg. Months later, while still in therapy, Johann called his mother in Homestead to tell her he was having some visions that homes and businesses alike would be flying flags at half-staff across the country. Liah allowed that she, too, had similar feelings. What do you think?
“Something big is going to happen,” he said.
It turned out to be 9/11.

A few days after 9/11, friends took Johann to a concert in Norfolk. A rock group was working the audience with the song Kryptonite. Suddenly, he felt like “I was losing my soul.” He hyperventilated, fell to his knees and held his chest. His pals panicked. They saw his head flip backward, as if he were shot.

 

“I felt it in my head, BOOM,” he recalls.

The next morning, he learned that a friend, a gunner’s mate, had donned his full dress uniform and blown his head off with a shotgun.

 

Such homemade explosion sparked a new kind of pressure. The grinding pressure of a federal republic’s demands for a period of peace around the world. That Johann Gokool and many of his ship mates fought and died for great prosperity at home and peace on earth is a measure of all the possibilities their freedom allowed them.

 

 

Out of all the possibilities his freedom allowed, Johann Gokool chose this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s