WASHINGTON – It was just before lunch on Oct. 12, 2000, when a suicide bomber slammed the side of the USS Cole off the Coast of Yemen, and in the minds of those who were there, it was the beginning of the War on Terror.
"The biggest thing people fail to realize is they look at 9/11 as the start on the War on Terror," said Kirk Lippold, former commander of the Cole. "The reality is that the war on terrorism started not on 9/11, but 10/12."
Now retired from the Navy, Lippold rarely talks about the day when he lost 17 sailors, but he spoke exclusively with FOX News about those dark moments after the attack.
"At 11:18, there was a thunderous explosion. You could feel that entire 8,400 tons of ship violently thrust up and to the right. It seemed to hang in the air for a second before coming back into the water. We rocked from side to side and surged forward and backward into the pier," he said.
"All the lights went out, ceiling tiles came down, emergency lighting came on. I immediately got up and had to grab my desk to stop from getting knocked over and when I could finally stand, when the ship stopped moving, I went to the door of my cabin. There were several people running around, then it was dead quiet and there was a wave of smoke and dust that washed over me."
Lippold moved quickly to assess the damage and find his men. "When I got there, I was stunned at the devastation. The best way to describe it would be that it was like someone had taken their fist and literally punched a 40-foot hole all the way in the side of the ship…all the way through, shoving everything out of its way until it came out the starboard side."
Even eight years after the attack, out of respect for the families, Lippold will only describe in general terms what he saw. "I don't want to get into specifics, but the force of an explosion like that does terrible things to a human body."
The average age of the dead was just 19. Nearly all of the sailors were killed instantly, but Lippold told FOX News that offers no consolation.
Among the sailors was Kenneth Clodfelter, a 21-year-old with a young wife and child. Clodfelter's mother, Gloria, says that when her son had been born -- a day after Christmas -- the family saw him as a gift from God to ease their loss after one of their children died in a freak accident. "He was my Christmas baby. He was our gift from God for Christmas and for our family."
Clodfelter found his sea-legs quickly in the Navy and told his parents it was a calling for him. "He'd called us up a month before the attack happened saying he had found himself a second home," his father, John Clodfelter, told FOX News.
It was Clodfelter who took the brunt of the blast in the Cole's hull, his parents said. With the force of the blast, "he became a part of the ship. That's the way they (the Navy) explained it to us," Gloria told FOX News.
Two years after the Clodfelters buried their son at Arlington National Cemetery, a Saudi was arrested and eventually transferred to the Guantanamo Bay military prison. One of three high-value detainees to be waterboarded, Abd al-Nashiri is the alleged planner of the Cole attack.
This week, al-Nashiri was supposed to be arraigned at Guantanamo Bay, but the hearing has been postponed until February because the defense wants more time. With President-elect Obama promising to eventually close the prison once he's in the White House, some of the Cole families question whether their cases will be put on hold.
"We've already waited eight years for justice," said Lippold. "Justice delayed is justice denied."
Clodfelter's father voiced the same fear. "That does concern me a great deal. I don't know why it's taken those people down at Guantanamo ... so long to bring this to a climax. It just doesn't make any sense why they're waiting so long," he said.
The story of the Cole is one of frustration. It happened three months before President Clinton left office and was then overshadowed by 9/11. The Clodfelters say both parties' administrations failed the Cole families.
"Bush never took the time to meet us or question us orm you know, say he's going to do what he can do," Gloria Clodfelter told FOX News. "That he'd take care of this."
And now the politics of Guantanamo are in play. Lippold says the rights of terrorists are being given more priority than the rights of his sailors who died as Americans for their country. "When you say 'we need to treat detainees fairly,' what about my crew?" he asked.
The Clodfelters buried their son more than once. The Navy kept finding more of his remains in the sea.
"A year later, they called again, and it's just ... why did they wait until something like that to call and tell this poor child that her husband's remains are still ..." Gloria paused and broke down sobbing. "I'm his mother, but his poor wife. She just went through hell."
Commander Lippold still carries a special red dog tag that memorializes those killed on the Cole. Lippold and the Clodfelters say they want the right to look al-Nashiri in the eye and see him answer for his heinous acts.
"Not a day goes by when I don't think about it," Lippold said.