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‘Bravery in battle’: Coast Guard ship named for slain Iraq War hero

The USCGC Nathan Bruckenthal, the Coast Guard's 28th fast response cutter, moors the day before its commissioning at the city marina in Alexandria, Va. Bruckenthal was killed in the Iraq War. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

A military band played, flags snapped in the breeze, 24 members of the new ship’s crew stood at attention and Coast Guard brass, including the commandant, filled an Alexandria dock Wednesday morning to commission a new ship named after the first Coast Guardsman killed in action since the Vietnam War.

Nathan Bruckenthal, a Herndon High School graduate who died during the Iraq War in 2004, would have been proud — and embarrassed — by the hoopla surrounding the commissioning of the USCG Nathan Bruckenthal, his older sister said.

“Nobody could entertain like Nathan. Nobody could light up a room, make you feel loved and laugh like him,” Noabeth Bruckenthal said. “His pride [in the Coast Guard] was tremendous . . . but he’d be completely humbled by this.”

Bruckenthal, a 25-year-old petty officer third class, was killed in the Persian Gulf when he and six sailors from the USS Firebolt sought to board and investigate a “dhow,” or small sailboat, that was drawing too close to an Iraqi oil terminal. As Bruckenthal’s team pulled alongside, a suicide bomber aboard the dhow detonated, killing Bruckenthal and two Navy sailors, Michael Pernaselli of Monroe, N.Y., and Christopher Watts of Knoxville, Tenn.

His Bronze Star citation said that because of Bruckenthal’s and his team’s actions, nearby security forces were alerted to a larger coordinated attack and were able to stop two similar explosive-laden vessels before they detonated. Bruckenthal is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The ship’s new commanding officer, Lt. Bryan Kilcoin, said Bruckenthal was on his second deployment to the Persian Gulf and had volunteered for a second watch on the day he was killed. He called Bruckenthal the embodiment of honor, respect and devotion to duty.

Kilcoin said the ship’s crew had voted to make the new ship’s motto “bravery in battle.”

Bruckenthal’s family remembered a big, loud, fun-loving young man who, while serving at a remote Neah Bay, Wash., post, volunteered as a firefighter and high school football coach at a nearby Makah tribal reservation. That’s where he met his wife, Patricia, who was studying on the reservation. They were married at Seattle’s Space Needle, where he wore a kilt that showed off the tattoos on his calf.

“He was always a hero in our mind, before he made the ultimate sacrifice,” said his father, Rick Bruckenthal. “The last story is the sad story, but also a great story because we don’t know how many people’s lives he and his crew saved that day.”

The new 154-foot Fast Response Cutter is one of 28 ships that are being named after Coast Guard heroes, officials said. The USCG Nathan Bruckenthal was built in Louisiana and will be based in Atlantic Beach, N.C., where its mission will include search and rescue, drug enforcement and homeland security.

Bruckenthal, whose wife was three months pregnant when he died, never met his now-13-year-old daughter Harper. But he seemed to have met nearly everyone else in the large crowd that filled the Alexandria dock, including friends from his native Long Island, to high school classmates in Northern Virginia, and shipmates from several postings.

Maritime Enforcement Specialist Chief Joseph Ruggiero was one. A Coast Guardsman since 2000, Ruggiero was a member of the USS Firebolt crew in 2004 and was one of four survivors from the small boat commanded by Bruckenthal on April 24, 2004.

“It happened so fast; there was no warning,” he said Wednesday after the official ceremony. He was injured by shrapnel to his face and arm, suffered hearing damage and required jaw reconstruction surgery.

Just before the ship’s commissioning ceremony, he reenlisted for another three years aboard the USCG Nathan Bruckenthal.

“I wouldn’t do it anywhere else,” he said.