WASHINGTON, August 5, 2009 – Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Ruggiero’s heroic actions more than five years ago saved lives and earned him the first Purple Heart awarded to a Coast Guardsman since the Vietnam War.
Ruggiero entered the service May 1, 2000, not knowing what the future would hold for him. His father, who served in the U.S. Marines in Vietnam, also served in the federal government for nearly four decades before retiring.
“I always wanted to be a cop or something in law enforcement, especially back then, the Coast Guard wasn’t really known for its law enforcement, and it has come a long way,” Ruggiero said.
Ruggiero fulfilled those law enforcement goals, deploying overseas four times -- three times to the Persian Gulf and once to the Mediterranean Sea -- during his first four years while assigned to Tactical Law Enforcement Team South, also known as TACLET.
He recalled the fateful events of 2004 when he was attached to the TACLET’s Law Enforcement Detachment team 403.
”We were deployed over to the Persian Gulf in late February, and were scheduled to stay until early June,” he said. “On the morning of April 23, we deployed on a coastal Navy patrol craft called the USS Firebolt that was deployed to the Persian Gulf in the spring of 2004.”
Firebolt and Ruggiero’s detachment arrived in the northern Arabian Gulf on the morning of April 24. They were tasked with maintaining and establishing a security zone around the Khawr al Amaya Oil Terminal by cautioning and redirecting vessels, mostly local fishing boats called dhows, to remain two miles clear of the structure.
In the evening, the crew, comprising two Coast Guardsman and five Navy sailors, left the Firebolt on a rigid hull inflatable boat to conduct patrols around the terminal. “We were tasked that day, along with the Australian navy, to clear out the fishing dhows around the oil platform,” he explained.
When they arrived at the oil terminal, they set up a two-mile security zone, passing out information pamphlets to dhows in a two-mile vicinity. They conducted a visit, board, search and seizure mission on board a 400-foot ship, but mostly interdicted dhows, Ruggiero said.
After securing these vessels, they were tasked to check out an incoming vessel on the other side of the terminal platform. This unidentified vessel was traveling on a course that would bring it too close to the oil terminal for comfort.
Something Wasn’t Right
“We came around on the other side of the platform. This is where the significance of this came in. This boat was very different than the norm you would see over there,” Ruggiero said. The “norm,” Ruggiero said, was a boat that was “nothing pretty to look at, that’s all wood in construction with in-board engines.” Ruggiero, who was serving his second tour in the Persian Gulf, was familiar with the fishing boats, and was immediately on guard when his crew approached the vessel.
“As we were approaching this vessel, I noticed that it looked brand new. It had a brand-new paint job, outboard engines, and no fishing gear on the deck whatsoever. All I could see was one person on deck,” he said.
Ruggiero said the crew aboard a dhow typically will have five to 15 people, depending on the length of the vessel.
The vessel, maintaining a speed of about 20 knots, forced the crew to maintain a relatively safe distance of 10 to 15 feet from the vessel.
Ruggiero noted that the incoming vessel had outboard engines, unmarked, and possibly too small for the 30-foot vessel.
“The outboards were loud and putting out a very smoky exhaust,” he recalled. “That was just one indicator that the boat was loaded with something heavy or the engines may have been too small, or unequipped for that size of a vessel.”
In just 45 seconds, everything changed. As the crew pulled alongside the vessel, due to the language barrier, they used hand signals to gain the attention of the boat’s driver and inform him to slow or stop. Instead, he sped away from the oil terminal, but then quickly returned, and moved toward the oil terminal at full speed.
“We then looped around the vessel to gain a better position,” Ruggiero said. “We again tried to establish communications with the man on the vessel when he suddenly turned the boat very sharp and was heading directly toward us. [We] attempted to turn away from the vessel and opened up a distance of 15 to 20 feet when the vessel then exploded.”
In the Face of Danger
“When the explosion happened, I was basically looking at the boat,” he said. The blast capsized the boat, “throwing everyone into the water in all different directions.”
“[I was later told by] my shipmates and other Navy sailors, as soon as the blast went off, they were about 150 yards from us; they didn’t see anyone emerge from the water for at least a full minute,” Ruggiero said.
Leaning on his prior service and training, “I first pulled my lanyard on my life jacket, when the only thing that happened was air escaping from it causing it not to inflate,” he said. “I then tried to stop spinning in the water,” which was caused by forcefully being thrown into the water. Ruggiero knew he needed to let his natural buoyancy take over to help him reach the surface.
When he reached the surface, he looked around, attempting to gain his bearings, and saw that his boat was capsized. His first instinct was to search for the remaining crew. While looking for his fellow crew members and dodging the falling debris, he realized his lifejacket was in shreds.
“As I was turning around in the water trying to see if anything or anyone was around me, my hand hit the hose to my camel pack, which is normally used to hold drinking water,” Ruggiero said. “But knowing I drank most of the water early in the day I blew air into the hose, which inflated the blater resulting in it becoming a modified flotation device.”
Despite being wounded in the explosion -- his eardrums appeared to be ruptured, his right arm was wounded and face was bleeding and swollen from the blast -- Ruggiero remained calm. He needed to help his fellow crew members.
The first person Ruggiero found after coming to the surface was Coast Guardsman Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal. “The back of his head was hit many times,” he recalled, and Bruckenthal was falling in and out of consciousness.
While swimming with Bruckenthal on his chest, Ruggiero then saw the coxswain, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class A.R. Daley, whose arm was badly injured. After swimming with Bruckenthal and locating Daley alongside the boat, his first intention was to take them both toward the Firebolt.
Before doing so, he scanned the surroundings and found Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael J. Pernaselli floating face down 50 yards away. Pernaselli was the leading boatswain's mate and a machine-gun operator on board the Firebolt. Ruggiero secured Bruckenthal and Daley on the boat and swam toward Pernaselli. With the current’s strength of eight knots, Ruggiero swiftly reached Pernaselli’s location. However, once there, he discovered Pernaselli was dead on impact.
“Right then and there I realized that we only worked with this Navy group not even a day, we really didn’t know anyone personally. The only person that I knew was Mike Pernaselli,” he said.
On instinct, without regard to his personal injuries, Ruggiero started to tow Pernaselli’s body against the current that had aided him swiftly through the water nearly five minutes earlier. After swimming against the current and fighting to see and breathe through the rotor wash from the helicopter above for nearly 20 minutes, he arrived at the capsized boat.
The helicopter was barely 15 feet above him and was involved in trying to help Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Christopher E. Watts by lowering a cable to pull him out of the water.
As three other crew members were being rescued, including Bruckenthal and Daley, Ruggiero waited aboard the capsized boat trying to regain his breath. “I straddled the keel of the capsized [boat] and pulled Mike’s body across my legs,” he said.
“I later re-entered the water from the capsized [boat] with Mike’s body and started swimming back towards the Firebolt where I was assisted by two shipmates, who jumped into the water from the Firebolt. The three of us, while pulling Mike’s body, eventually made it close enough to the Firebolt where we were given a line and pulled in towards the ship,” Ruggiero said.
He later learned that his team member’s actions that day prevented a large-scale attack that would have caused severe damage to the oil pipeline or destruction of the offshore oil terminals.
In the explosion, Ruggiero’s fellow Coast Guardsman, Bruckenthal, and two sailors, Pernaselli and Watts, were killed, and four others wounded.
“We are all indebted to the boatcrew involved that fateful day, for they put others before themselves,” said Captain Gail Kulisch, acting commander for the Deployable Operations Group, the Coast Guard command responsible for overseeing tactical law enforcement teams. “BM1 Ruggiero’s heroic attempts to save the crew and his actions epitomize our service’s core values.”
A Salute to Heroes
Ruggiero was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained while defending the terminal, and the Bronze Star with a Combat “V” for Valor for his rescue efforts. Ruggiero's shipmate team member and friend, Bruckenthal, was posthumously given the same awards.
“I returned to the Persian Gulf by choice about a year and a half after the attack,” Ruggiero said. “I conducted missions around the oil terminals and actually lived on one of the terminals for about two weeks training Iraqi marines on how to conduct boardings.”
Today, Ruggiero still deals with lingering effects from the explosion. He said that for nearly a year and a half after the explosion his biggest concern was difficulty hearing and bleeding from his ears. He currently is having dental work completed to realign his jaw.
(This is the 12th installment of the Wounded Warrior Diaries series. Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)