Student Veteran Who Aided in Somali Pirate Rescue Now Works with UT Vets

She’s in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s hot, she’s hungry, and she’s been staring through the scope of a .50-caliber machine gun for sixty hours straight.

Melina and Phillips

Melina Gardner with Capt. Richard Phillips.

Five years ago, as a US Navy petty officer on the USS Bainbridge, Melina Gardner—now a twenty-six-year-old senior in sociology at UT—found herself in the middle of a four-day standoff between the Navy and Somali pirates during the now-famous rescue of ship’s captain Richard Phillips.

As Veterans Day approaches, Gardner reflected on her experiences in the military and how she now helps other veterans as a student worker in UT’s Office of Veterans Affairs.

In April 2009, Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama, a cargo ship with twenty-three crew members, in the Indian Ocean. They later fled in a lifeboat, taking the ship’s captain with them. Naval forces on the Bainbridge were sent to the Gulf of Aden to rescue Phillips from the pirates.

The dramatic events were chronicled in the 2013 Oscar-winning movie Captain Phillips.

Gardner was a gas turbine electrician on the Bainbridge during the rescue mission and was involved with the mission because of her weapons training. She watched the pirates and Phillips through the scope of her gun, tracking any movement and relaying that information to other officers.

“It was kind of awful,” Gardner said. “I saw everything. I saw the beginning where we came up to the lifeboat to the end when the pirates were killed.”

Navy SEAL snipers aboard the Bainbridge killed three of the Somali pirates holding Phillips captive to end the standoff. For Gardner, the end was the most stressful part of the mission.

“Because it was dark, we didn’t know where it was going to go,” recalled Gardner. “The pirates were really upset because we were towing them. They kept shouting, saying that they were going to kill Capt. Phillips.”

Gardner helped maintain electrical components on the Bainbridge, including the guided-missile destroyer’s gas turbine engines.

“For me, it was just doing my job. I felt like if we didn’t save him, then we would have failed.”

A Colorado native, Gardner was convinced by her Navy shipmates to move to Knoxville after her discharge.

Gardner has a double major in geography and sociology with a concentration in criminal justice. She hopes to pursue a career with the FBI after she graduates in May.

“It’s funny to see people when you tell them that you are a veteran,” Gardner commented. “I think veterans’ faces have changed a lot. There’s no age limit to being a veteran.”

Gardner said being a student veteran can be difficult because they aren’t traditional college students.

“We have around 900 student veterans and veteran dependents here at UT,” she said. “It’s hard for student veterans to relate to someone who’s nineteen years old and just got out of high school. They don’t know how to interact with us and we don’t know how to interact with them.

“We have a lot of life experiences. We’ve been in charge of facilities, other people and equipment that costs more than tuition for four years at UT,” Gardner said. “I drove a warship that’s worth billions of dollars. We’ve done a lot.”

C O N T A C T:

Amy Blakely, (865-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)