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At Home Port, Sober Thoughts on a New Statue

Ceremony: The gathering is 'a vivid reminder that for our military families, not all homecomings are happy,' Norfolk's mayor says.


NORFOLK, Va. — It was on a Navy dock 33 years ago that Mary McKinney introduced her husband, just back from the sea, to their newborn son. At a homecoming six years later, she presented their daughter.

When Jean Pilkerton's husband returned from duty, she always bought something special to throw on the grill, a luxury he did not have at sea. "You cleaned the house," she recalled. "You dressed the kids up."

This Navy town was supposed to honor memories such as these Saturday with a long-planned unveiling of "The Homecoming," a statue of a sailor embraced by his wife and young son after he returns from the sea.

But for the approximately 200 people who turned out for the unveiling, the celebration was tempered by the knowledge that there will be no joyful reunion for families of the 17 U.S. sailors killed Thursday on the Norfolk, Va.-based guided missile destroyer Cole. An explosion ripped into the warship from an apparent terrorist bomb.

"The Cole focuses us on the angst that many families feel" when a sailor goes to sea, said retired Adm. Hank McKinney, Mary's husband and president of the U.S. Navy Memorial Foundation, which raised money for the statue. "It's more than separation. . . . It's that he or she may not come home at all."

The Cole left a little more than two months ago from Norfolk, home to the largest naval fleet in the world. Though no relatives of the ship's crew members participated in Saturday's unveiling ceremony, people who did said the loss is felt by the entire Navy.

"For all of us who have been privileged to wear the uniform . . . when one is struck, we are all struck," Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) told the crowd.

Warner said the explosion on the Cole will only harden the Navy's resolve "to deter aggression and, if that fails, to protect freedom. . . . This tragedy has not deterred us from that mission."

The 7-foot bronze statue, a replica of one at the Navy Memorial in Washington, is "a vivid reminder that for our military families, not all homecomings are happy, that we live in a still-dangerous world . . . where members of the military still pay a dear price," Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said.

The words struck home for Pilkerton. Her husband, George, served in the Navy for 22 years. "He was on a carrier during Vietnam," the mother of four recalled. "You never know what can happen. That was a stressful time, the worst time."

Ruby Wells, like Pilkerton, participated in the ceremony as a member of the Ladies Auxiliary Fleet Reserve Assn., Unit 40.

"When Tom and I got married," Wells recollected, "he said: 'The Navy comes first. You come second.' "

"It was like that with George too," Pilkerton said. "Navy first, and then family. But you learn to accept it."

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