Wednesday, December 23, 2009

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Johann Gokool

Remember Our Heroes

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Johann Gokool lost his left leg when a bomb ripped a hole in the side of the USS Cole nearly a decade ago, but the injury was nothing compared with the mental torment that ravaged him almost daily. He returned home to Florida suffering severe post-traumatic stress disorder and frequent panic attacks so violent he would launch into seizures and even fractured his own wrist several times as he flailed, sister Natala Gokool said Tuesday.

One of the brothers he lived with, his younger brother Hamish, found him dead in their home Wednesday, December 23, 2009, just a week after his 31st birthday, Natala Gokool said. His cause of death was unknown, though she said foul play was not suspected. The family believes the seizures just became too much for his body to handle.

Gokool was an electronic warfare technician aboard the Cole when suicide bombers rammed a small boat packed with explosives into it on Oct. 12, 2000, during a refueling stop in Aden, Yemen. It triggered a string of deadly fires. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed and 39 others injured. His sister said he soon began having panic attacks.

"Every year around the anniversary of the attack on the Cole, it seemed to get worse and more violent and more frequent," she said.

When he was awake, the episodes were generally mild, she said. When they struck in his sleep, he would thrash uncontrollably.

``We had to restrain him,'' said Natala, project coordinator for a Miami architecture firm. ``Once, he got loose and hit me with such force I went through the [open] front window.'' Later, he'd have no memory of the incidents.

``When he was doing well, he was outgoing,'' she said. ``He spoke to everyone and was very friendly,'' a practical joker who would play tricks with his prosthetic leg. ``When he wasn't doing well, it was physically exhausting.''

When he could, Gokool spoke to school kids about overcoming adversity. He played cards on Monday evenings, and had an on-again, off-again relationship with a longtime girlfriend.

He loved Buffalo wings, Caribbean dishes like curried crab and shrimp, and all kinds of music, from German punk rock to a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace to Sean ``Diddy'' Combs' raps.

He was clean-cut and preppy, Natala said. ``He didn't own a pair of jeans.''

Drenched in Davidoff's Cool Water cologne, he'd declare: ``I want to look sharp and smell good.''

Gokool recalled her brother as a "fun-loving, outgoing, friendly, generous to-a-fault type of person," even after the bombing.

He was in the ship's mess hall during the attack. "When the explosion went off, everything was in slow motion, like a movie," Gokool told The Miami Herald in 2005. "My body spun around and I could smell smoke and fuel." After being knocked unconscious, Gokool said he woke up and slowly dragged himself up a ladder to rescue. "I don't want to die here," he said he thought to himself.

Doctors later removed his badly injured left leg, and he was visited in the hospital by then-President Bill Clinton.

"The president ... told me to hang in there," Gokool told the Herald. "I told him not to worry, that I'd make it, and to prove it, I'd open a nightclub and he'd be the first musician I'd invite so he could watch me dance on one leg while he played the sax."

Gokool lived in Homestead, about 35 miles southwest of Miami.

His sister said the lost leg "didn't really have any effect on him once the physical wound healed."

It was the panic attacks that scarred him. He couldn't work and stayed home when he felt them coming on, which was sometimes too often for him to live any normal life. He played cards occasionally and video games, and chatted often on the Internet with friends. He and his sister would go to the movies just about every Tuesday, but only when he felt comfortable there were no panic attacks looming.

"We saw every specialist you could think of but nobody knew what was causing it. They could just rule things out," his sister said.

While Gokool's death was sudden, "my parents and my brothers and I always knew that unless somebody could figure out what was wrong with him, it would probably kill him," she said. "A part of us always knew that would be his demise."

The family plans to take his ashes to Arlington National Cemetery, where the Cole dead lie in a special section. ``He always said he wanted to be interred with his buddies up there,'' his father said.

Born in Trinidad, Johann Gokool was 8 years old when the family moved to South Florida. His father, Ramish, is Hindu, of Indian heritage; his mother, Liah, is French Creole Catholic. Brothers Angelo and Hamish Gokool of Homestead, and Owen Paponette of Richmond, Va., also survive.

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