Life Moments column
By Christine Bryant
Every Memorial Day, my mind turns to a person I never met and this past Memorial Day was no different.
It was about four months after I graduated from college. I had found a reporting job in the tiny town of Ashland, Va., about 20 minutes north of Richmond.
Ashland is a charming town, with one of those storybook downtown areas that features historic colonial homes and a railroad track that runs down the middle of the main road, separating each side. It even has a strawberry festival every June.
The countryside of Hanover County, where Ashland is located, is painted with rolling hills dotted with family farms. In the summer of 2000, I rented a second-story apartment in one of these farm homes. It wasn’t unusual for me to see a stray cow walking down the street.
Even though it was only a short trek down I-95 to Richmond, Ashland made you feel as if you were truly embracing small town living.
As the newest reporter, I often was tasked with chasing down breaking news – occurrences that in a larger city might not make the front page (or any page for that matter), like minor car accidents or the prevalence of parking tickets in the downtown area.
On one occasion, the police scanner tipped me off about a worker trapped in a trench collapse at a construction site (he survived). I arrived to find other Richmond media there, and while standing on a front porch offered by a nearby homeowner, I struck up a friendship with one of the local TV reporters.
A couple months after the trench collapse, that reporter called with a news tip.
On the morning of Oct. 12, 2000, the USS Cole was docked in Yemen’s Aden harbor during a routine fuel stop when a small fiberglass boat carrying C4 explosives and two suicide bombers approached the port side of the destroyer and exploded.
The explosion created a 40-by-60-foot gash in the ship’s port side, killing 17 American sailors and injuring 39.
Among those killed was Hull Maintenance Technician 2nd Class Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter.
The 21-year-old was from Mechanicsville, Virginia, which is located down the road from Ashland and also in Hanover County.
Eighteen years ago, there was no social media. Updating our newspaper website seemed incredibly advanced, and even then, news usually didn’t make it on the website until it already had been published in print.
Although the story would be on the local TV news that evening, it would need to be a story we covered in the paper as well, even though the paper wouldn’t publish for a few days.
With the help of my reporter friend, I was able to track down Clodfelter’s relatives who lived nearby.
Believe me when I tell you, no matter how you may feel about the press today, no one takes joy in calling the relatives of a young man who was just killed, especially by a terrorist. To this day, I think it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a reporter.
As a 22-year-old, I wasn’t much older then Kenneth Clodfelter, who was 21 at the time of his death. I couldn’t possibly understand what it would feel like as parents to lose their child, but I did feel a sense of guilt that someone my age who had done far more to serve others was no longer here.
His father-in-law spoke with me on the phone and was gracious and eager to share the story of who his son was and why he wanted to serve his country. Kenneth was also a husband and father to a 2-year-old.
I walked away from the interview feeling like I knew him and had lost someone myself – though no where near the sorrow his wife, parents and friends and family must have unimaginably experienced that day. The small community of Mechanicsville had lost one of its own as well, and that feeling reverberated throughout every small town in the area.
Though the bombing of the USS Cole was one of several stories I have written about over the course of my career, it is one that nearly 18 years later, I still carry with me.
Memorial Day recognizes those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and the story of Kenneth Clodfelter has taught me that we must remember our heroes every day. Especially for those who have lost loved ones serving in the Armed Forces, every day is Memorial Day.
It also serves as a reminder that living our lives with honor is the best way to honor those who sacrificed their lives. We owe them that.
I never knew Kenneth Eugene Clodfelter, but I knew him to be brave, giving and selfless. He is not forgotten.
Christine Bryant is a Messenger staff writer and columnist.