John Edward Russell
Lieutenant, United States Navy
a contemporary press report:
USS Cole hero dies short of Navy pension for
widow, 2 sons
The Navy has denied a pension to the widow of a Lieutenant who helped rescue the USS Cole after last year's terrorist strike because he died last week on Veteran's Day — 33 days shy of his 20-year pension.
Liutenant John Russell, 41, suffered a massive heart attack while helping a fellow Navy officer trim branches from a backyard tree in Jacksonville, Florida, on November 11, 2001. Three days later, on the afternoon of his wake, his widow was told she would not be receiving a lifelong pension of about $1,500 a month.
"It makes me very angry," said Mary Russell, the mother of two young boys. "He gave up his youth for the Navy. And I sacrificed a lot waiting for him to come home, always waiting for our ship to come in."
Navy Lieutenant Commander Dan Conrad, who worked with Lieutenant Russell before retiring, was outraged by the ruling. "I just think it's wrong," Commander Conrad said. "This was a great American and I think he deserved better."
Lieutenant Russell has been on the Navy's payroll for more than 20 years. He enlisted on August 14, 1981, under an arrangement that allowed him to report for duty on December 14, which is now considered the official start of his service.
Late last year, Lieutenant Russell was on the USS Tarawa in the Arabian Sea when the USS Cole was struck by a terrorist explosion that killed 17 sailors while moored in the Yemeni port of Aden. The bombing was linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network. The heavily armed Tarawa, an amphibious assault ship that Lieutenant Russell liked to call "40,000 tons of twisted steel and sex appeal," steamed toward the stricken Cole. Lieutenant Russell insisted to his commanding officer that he be involved in the rescue.
Upon arriving at the scene, Lieuetnant Russell commandeered a Yemeni tugboat and, after checking it for booby traps, maneuvered it alongside the 40-foot-wide hole that had been ripped into the destroyer's hull. "As the sun came up, the hole got more pronounced," Lieutenant Russell recalled after the incident. "When a wave came by, water would go right inside. I mean, it was horrifying."
As Islamic fundamentalists with daggers tucked in their waistbands jeered at him from the shore, Lieutenant Russell helped maneuver the Cole away from a pier and out to safe waters. "We had to get her out of there," he said. During this deployment, Lieutenant Russell became one of more than 1,400 overseas service members whose absentee ballots in last year's election were disqualified at the request of former Vice President Al Gore. When the episode turned into a public relations fiasco for Mr. Gore, hundreds of ballots — including Lieutenant Russell's — were resurrected, although many more remain uncounted.
Lieutenant Russell once served on the USS John F. Kennedy under Captain Mike Miller, who now works in the White House military liaison office. When he learned about the pension problem, Captain Miller started placing phone calls. "You know, sometimes just working at the White House has a way of getting people to at least reconsider some decisions that may or may not be the right thing to do," Captain Miller told The Washington Times. "But I've called all the Navy folks and, according to the avy regulations and all the people that manage this for us, they say that it's non-waiverable, that you have to have 20 years.
"So I looked at trying to appeal this to the Board of Correction of Naval Records, to request that his service date be adjusted," he said. "But I don't have any grounds for that."
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Richard Tucker, the benefits coordinator assigned to the Russell case, has been trying to assemble an alternative package of benefits from such agencies as the Veterans Administration and the Social Security Administration.
"I haven't exhausted my efforts yet," he said. "John was a very likable fellow with a lot of friends here. The Navy would bend over backwards to do everything they could for him. And they may still."
Lieutenant Russell's brother-in-law, Philip Mahoney of Virginia, has begun calling members of Congress to lobby for special legislation that would award the pension to his sister and her sons, Kyle, 14, and Ian, 10.
"I'm not upset with the Navy or anyone else;
I just want something for Kyle and Ian," said Mr. Mahoney, who become emotional.
"I served in the Marine Corps six and a half years and I'm proud to say
that he was my brother-in-law. He instilled so much pride in me."
LT. JOHN EDWARD RUSSELL
Lieutenant John E. Russell was an American hero. He not only was a great Patriot, but he was my husband and the father of two young sons.
John Russell was raised in Lorton Virginia, one of four sons. He attended college at Northern Virginia Community College, but the studies were not challenging enough for him. He decided to enlist in the United States Navy after comparing what the military had to offer. His specialty was training in electronics and radar maintenance. John’s career was successful and he worked his way up through the ranks to an electronics technician. While he enjoyed the challenges of his work, once, he married, he began to think of a brighter future for himself and his wife, Mary. At that time, he began to think about goals for the future and how he could better himself and his career. He met CWO4 Tom Huffine and Tom noticed that this young sailor was headstrong but very intelligent. John was an excellent electronics technician and he and Tom forged a friendship that would last twenty years.
With the guidance and experience of Tom Huffine
behind him, John Russell was challenged to be the best electronics tech
on every ship he was assigned to. The foundation for his career began on
the USS Flatley (FFG-21) as an ET3 onboard, and his days and nights were
long and arduous, but he forged his way and soon was recognized as a “go-getter”.
He sacrificed liberty in foreign ports to insure that his equipment was
always ready to go. For him, it was a distraction from the heartache
of being away from his wife. He worked hard, with thoughts of one
day applying for an officer program, whether it was “limited duty officer
(LDO)” or Chief Warrant Officer (CWO). Tom Huffine began to groom
John for the requirements to apply to either of these programs.
Years went by, and the arduous life of being a sailor had its ups and downs. John had many underway periods, a few different ships and lots of experience and “on the job” training. He challenged himself all the time to continue to keep the LDO/CWO application process in the back of his mind.
He submitted his package for LDO as soon as his tenure as an electronics technician allowed. There were so many aspects of that application that required years of work. In 1990, ET1(SW) John Russell was selected as a candidate for the LDO program. It was a great achievement for him as he had been selected with only eight years in the Navy while the general requirement was ten years. By the time his commissioning took place, he would have over nine years of service.
That was such an exciting time. John Russell had to wait 14 months before he could change uniforms. He had to wait 14 months before he could get rid of the blue bell-bottom jeans and trade them in for a set of khakis, and all the other aspects of a USN officer uniform. He had to go to work everyday for 14 months, saying “yes, sir” when he knew one day they would be saluting him.
April 1, 1992: The greatest day in John Russell’s naval career. The birth of his children would be the greatest days of his life. April 1st was going to be a great day! Tom Huffine and John planned a joint ceremony. Tom Huffine was going to retire from the navy after he pinned the ENSIGN bar on John’s new uniform. This ceremony was going to be held onboard the USS FLATLEY (FFG-21), where it all began so many years before.
Ensign John E. Russell’s career in the Navy
entailed being Electronics Material Officer(EMO) on the USS JOHN HANCOCK
(DDG-981). Field Operations, NWS DAHLGREN EMO, USS JOHN F KENNEDY
(CV -67), EMO USS TARAWA (LHA-1),
While John was stationed onboard the USS TARAWA, he deployed for a six month cruise in August 2000-February 2001. During this deployment, two substantial incidents happened that would be most newsworthy. First, the USS COLE was attacked by terrorists off the coast of Yemen. His ship was called to go assist in saving the ship. The Tarawa was in the Indian Ocean and was sent to the Red Sea. The Tarawa provided support for the embattled ship. Lieutenant John Russell would tell the Captain of the ship that he wanted to be helping, he wanted to be on the patrol boats protecting the ship. So, that is where the Captain sent him. Lieutenant Russell would be down on the patrol boats wearing a cowboy hat, in the middle of it all, trying to convince the Marines that they were all having fun.
While all of this was going on with the Cole, the election of 2000 was happening at home. This same man, my husband, had sent in his absentee ballot for the election. His absentee ballot was one of the disenfranchised votes of the election between George Bush and Al Gore. The elections office in Duval county Florida had received his ballot, but it was cast out because it lacked a postmark. I , his wife, was called by an elections volunteer, they told me that they witnessed this, and wanted to know how my husband would feel about that. I replied, my husband is active duty Navy and is presently deployed on a ship overseas, he would be very upset!
Well, we all know what continued with that election, and eventually, it all worked out. But Lieuenant John Russell was part of that piece of history. His story made it back to Washington, D.C. and Fox News correspondent Bill Sammon researched this election and included Lieutenant John Russell’s story in his book, “At Any Cost, How Al Gore tried to Steal the Election”. This story was incredible, and when the book was released it was all over the airwaves that this had happened to him.
That was Lieutenant Russell’s 15 minutes of fame. This fame served his family well when his sudden death occurred on November 11, 2001, Veteran’s Day. Lieutenant John Russell had at that point in time, 33 days shy of 20 years in the military and he died on Veteran’s Day. He had enlisted delayed entry in 1981, but when he died, the Navy was unsure which date to use for survivor’s benefits. Also, these benefits would be so close to retiree benefits, but he died on active duty.
I can say, without regrets, that the United States Navy did the right thing and provided survivor benefits to me and my sons that were well earned by my husband. Numerous wonderful people helped my family through those first dark days. Military contacts over the years, opened doors to get paperwork processed. After my husband’s death, the biggest problem after the benefits issue was resolved was --where to send the documents and paperwork?
Colleagues and former commanding officers sent word to others that had once worked with Lieuteant Russell, and before I could answer all the calls I had a phone call from Rear Admiral Michael Miller. Admiral Miller was once a Commanding Officer onboard the USS JOHN F KENNEDY and Lieutenant Russell had worked for him. Well, Admiral Miller was well connected. He was presently Deputy Director of Military Affairs at the White House. He was in charge of the travel plans for the President. When it came time to process my paperwork, the assistance of Admiral Miller was necessary to get it completed. My Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO) Lieutenant Tucker was struggling with the paperwork. He was having difficulty getting it processed. Laws had been changed because of the attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Many survivors of the deceased in that attack, were also experiencing similar problems. The problem being, the deaths occurred so close to retirement age, what should be done? Well, the law was changed to make the benefits apply to those that had died with many years of service, the benefits would be commensurate with the years of service. The paperwork had to be processed for me, and that was the problem for Lieutenant Tucker.
This is where Admiral Miller’s assistance came into action. His office was contacted and he assigned someone to research and find answers to the problems that Lieutenant Tucker was having. We had worked on these benefits for 7 months, after Admiral Miller’s assistance, I had my money in the bank in 10 days. His assistance cleared the path for the others that had also been waiting on their benefits to be processed. That was a nice feeling to know, that out of the pain, there was still some good happening.
Many friends and military colleagues have helped in so many ways, out of complete loyalty to the memory of my husband and the father of my two sons. We have had our troubled times, but the love and friendship that was shown to us always brightened our days and allowed us many happy memories. My husband would be humbled at the attention that we received in his memory, but he was an exceptional man.
Lieutenant John E. Russell loved his country,
loved his family and his family is proud to have his final resting place
in such hallowed grounds. His dedication, commitment and sacrifices
will always be remembered.