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Chattanooga shooting investigation: Marine shielded his daughter from terrorist's rampage

September 25, 2015 (Photo Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press)

 

When the Chattanooga recruiting center came under attack this summer, the first of two targets in a Tennessee man's murderous and still unexplained rampage, a Marine inside shielded his young daughter from the gunfire and potentially saved a colleague's life by ordering him not to run, Marine Corps Times has learned.

Gunnery Sgt. Camden Meyer's actions on July 16 are among several revelations gleaned from a Marine Corps investigation into what transpired when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on the Chattanooga recruiting center before killing five service members at a Navy facility across town. The investigating officer's report, released by Marine Corps Recruiting Command via the Freedom of Information Act, also discloses that two potential recruits — Marines call them poolees — were among the gunman's first targets, and that Meyer, the recruiting station's noncommissioned officer in charge, subsequently discounted the adequacy of the training Marines receive for lone-wolf active-shooter scenarios.

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Gunnery Sgt. Camden Meyer protected his daughter from the Chattanooga shooter at the same time he yelled commands at another Marine to protect him from incoming gunfire.
Photo Credit: Marine Corps

Though heavily redacted, the 41-page document offers a detailed look at Marines' frantic escape from the recruiting center. The attack ignited a nationwide debate about how to protect military recruiters and other personnel assigned to small remote facilities, and whether such troops should be authorized to carry firearms. Federal authorities have not said whether Abdulazeez was inspired by radical Islam, but this debate, which has echoed through Congress, the Pentagon and several state governments, is driven by calls from the self-proclaimed Islamic State group to target American military personnel and their families on U.S. soil.

This is not the first time service members have been targeted at home, of course. Chattanooga only underscores the growing risk troops take simply by putting on their uniforms and going to work. But this nightmare exposes another threat, one just as sinister and worrisome. Every day, children, teenagers and young adults pass through thousands of military recruiting stations around the country. Today, as each of the military's services is reviewing its security measures at these facilities, officials say that preserving public safety is a top priority.

"Marine Corps Recruiting Command has more than 1,500 recruiting facilities across the country," said Maj. Garron Garn, a spokesman. "The preponderance of these offices are located within malls or co-located with other businesses. Because these offices are a meeting place for Marines and interested prospects, poolees and/or family members, our ongoing review of security measures take into account all parties who may be present in the office."

One Marine was wounded in the recruiting center attack, but all seven people inside — the four Marines, two poolees and one little girl, according to a Marine official — escaped without serious injury. No one was armed, the report states.

Abdulazeez, 24, had an assault rifle, a shotgun and a pistol. From a rented Ford Mustang convertible, he fired between 30 and 45 rounds at the recruiting center's glass storefront before speeding off.

Lance Cpl. Christopher Gilliam, the most junior Marine in the office, was first to spot the shooter and yelled to the others to run. Meyer was seated in his office when a bullet came through the wall and hit the ceiling. When he stood up and saw Abdulazeez, Meyer told the investigating officer, he immediately “grabbed my daughter and yelled at the same time for [Sgt. Winfield] Thompson to ‘get down.’ ” Thompson, who was in Meyer's office when the attack began, was ready to run, Meyer's statement reads. Doing so could have made him an easy target.  

Abdulazeez began to fire quickly, Meyer told the investigator. “I hit the floor," he said, "and immediately began to flatten my daughter’s body as flat as it could go and shielding it with my body from the fire. I yelled at [Thompson] to stay down until the break in fire. …I know the shooter would have to switch weapons, change clips or reload."

About 10 seconds later, Meyer's statement indicates, he heard Abdulazeez pause. He yelled to Thompson that they needed run. Meyer scooped up his daughter, and the three made it out the back door unharmed.

Similar heroism was displayed at the Naval Operational Support Center, the reserve facility some 10 miles away where Abdulazeez was shot dead after inflicting mass casualties. Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, one of four slain Marines, directed his junior troops to clear a nearby neighborhood park that was packed with children. They rounded up all of the children and hunkered down in a building nearby.

Marines at Recruiting Substation Chattanooga told the investigating officer that July 16 began like most workdays, according to the report. They arrived at work about 7:30 a.m. Meyer talked with his Marines about their plans for the day and then left the office to deal with a car repair.

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Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley was shot in the leg during the attack. Marine officials have prepared a package nominating him for the Purple Heart.
Photo Credit: Marine Corps

He returned just after 9 a.m. with his daughter, whom he agreed to watch for a few hours while his wife ran some errands, he told the investigator. Another Marine recruiter left to get a haircut. Around the same time, the two poolees arrived. They were scheduled to take a strength test before shipping out to boot camp.

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Sgt. Winfield Thompson was in Meyer's office the gunman opened fire.
Photo Credit: Marine Corps

At 10:30 a.m., Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley, who’d been on recruiting duty for less than two months, learned his next appointment was running late and wouldn’t arrive at the office until 11 a.m. Gilliam, the lance corporal who first spotted Abdulazeez, was on temporary orders to the recruiting substation and sat on a couch at the front of the office. Cheeley joined him, and the two were talking to the poolees about joining the service.

Ten minutes later, Abdulazeez pulled up to the storefront. “The only thing I can remember seeing was two arms holding a weapon,” Gilliam told the investigating officer. The gunman was a mere five feet away, perched in his convertible. Inside, the Marines were only three feet from the window. 

“Run!” Gilliam yelled as the first rounds were fired into the office. He jumped over a cubicle and toward the back door. Once Gilliam exited, he headed down a hill and into a warehouse, where he called the police. 

Cheeley and the poolees followed him. When they reached the back door, Cheeley told the investigating officer, he looked back to the front of the office and saw a gun barrel. Once outside, he noticed blood running down his leg, but didn’t realize until later that one of the bullets had ripped through his thigh. 

In Meyer's office, Thompson hit the deck. He looked around in shock and then locked eyes with Meyer, who was on the ground shielding his daughter as Abdulazeez unleashed rapid gunfire.

Once several seconds passed without a shot, Meyer yelled at Thompson to run. “We got up, I grabbed my daughter in my arms and began to run out the back door,” Meyer told the investigator. They proceeded to a hill, with Meyer carrying the little girl over his right shoulder. 

Everyone was out of the office within a minute, the report says.

 

Outside, Meyer accounted for his Marines and then headed to the strip mall's north side to check whether Abdulazeez was gone. Cheeley, who was behind a dumpster in the back of the building, said he saw the gunman drive away.

Meyer then went back into the office to make sure no one was inside, passing through the bullet-riddled front doors. The police arrived soon after.

"I called my [wife] and told her to come get [our daughter] now," Meyer told the investigating officer. 

An ambulance was called for Cheeley, who said at first he thought the wound was from broken glass — not a bullet. Someone told Meyer to have the Marines change out of their uniforms and head home. He also told the poolees to go home. 

When FBI agents arrived around noon, Meyer was the first from the recruiting office to give them a statement. By that point, Abdulazeez had been shot and killed by law enforcement responding to the Navy reserve center. His victims included Wyatt, who had instructed his men to clear the playground, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Sgt. Carson Holmquist and Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells. Navy Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith succumbed to his wounds just over a day later.

The Marines inside the recruiting office credit their survival to a mix of combat training and common sense. All recruiters attend annual anti-terrorism, force protection training, which according to spokesman Garn can be administered via lectures or online courses. It covers a variety of topics, including case studies, best practices and active-shooter response scenarios, he added.

None of that was helpful that morning in Chattanooga, according to the Marines. "We all believe that the [anti-terrorism, force protection] training did not help us in this situation," Meyer wrote in an email to Marine officials after the attack. "Our Marine training and common sense is what helped us evade and escape."

Thompson said that as he ran out the back door, he recalled the mantra he learned at Marine Combat Training, a mandatory weekslong program that follows boot camp. "'I'm up, they see me, I'm down' — every Marine knows that drill," he said, referring to the service's movement-under-fire technique. 

The investigating officer offered several opinions and recommendations in the report. However, all were redacted and Marine Corps Recruiting Command declined to provide further details. Generally, Garn said, they are intended to provide commanders with potential solutions or actions aimed at preventing similar situations from occurring again.

A separate Navy Department investigation is examining safety measures at facilities across the Navy and Marine Corps. That's ongoing. Those recommendations will likely trump those made in the Recruiting Command report, said a Marine official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because that investigation remains ongoing. 

Lt. Gen. Mark Brilakis, the general who oversees all of the Marine Corps' recruiters, told Marine Corps Times in September that Marine leaders have ruled out arming recruiters since much of their job involves interacting with the public. Other security measures are being considered, though, like remote locking devices Marines can use to keep people out of a recruiting station and bulletproof panels that can be moved within an office. Bulletproofing all storefronts would be cost prohibitive, the general said. 

Security training for Marine recruiters will also be a priority, Brilakis added. "Marines in Chattanooga got out of that recruiting station in less than a minute," he said. "And they did so because ... every one of those Marines had been trained or had a conversation once they got to the recruiting substation about what happens in the event of 'X' — and when 'X' happened, they all executed perfectly."

The Navy Department's investigation will likely inform Defense Department-wide security measures that for all military facilities — including recruiting offices — across the country. 

Elizabeth Wood, the wife of a Marine sergeant on recruiting duty, said safety concerns remain on the minds of military recruiters' families.

"Our worry before this incident was 'Is he going to be home for dinner tonight?' because of his long hours," Wood said. "I never thought I would have to worry about him going to work and somebody coming into his office and harming them."

Wood and her husband have a 5-year-old son. She and her son often bring dinner to her husband's office if he is stuck at work, but the attacks in Chattanooga gave her pause the next few times they visited the station. 

"The first month after the incident, I was a little leery when it would be time to stop in the office," she said. 

Wood would love to see better safety measures at recruiting stations, she said, since most of them sit in bustling suburban areas and are full of windows. Recruiters are busy, she said, and can't constantly be looking out the windows to assess what's going on outside. 

"You can't always prevent something from happening, but you can try," she said. "That's going to help create a deterrence." 

As Marines face new threats, stories of heroism like that displayed in Chattanooga have included a lot of talk about how to recognize such bravery. In September, Air Force Secretary Deborah James told Military Times that the Defense Department is exploring how the military’s award system should evolve to reflect valorous acts involving enemies who choose to fight American forces outside declared battlefields. "This really is a worldwide threat situation," James said. 

Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone had just been awarded the Purple Heart and the Airman’s Medal — the service’s highest noncombat award — for foiling a plot to commit mass murder on board a train in Europe. Authorities said the alleged gunman in that case was motivated by radical Islam, prompting calls by some to award Stone with a Silver Star, which is currently reserved for actions in designated war zones. 

The Defense Department's medals review is expected to conclude soon. It remains to be seen how that may affect any awards for the bravery displayed in Chattanooga. But the fact that the Marine Corps and Navy have preemptively nominated the shooting victims for Purple Hearts indicates at least that some see a tie between that attack and international terrorism. Vice President Joe Biden, for one, called Abdulazeez's actions the work of a “perverted jihadist.”  

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When the gunman attacked Chattanooga's Navy reserve center, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt ordered his Marines to clear a nearby park filled children.
Photo Credit: Via WBIR

Marine Maj. Mike Abrams, the commanding officer of the Marines killed at the Navy reserve center, recalled several acts of heroism that occurred in the midst of the attack. "One Marine, with total disregard for his own safety, ran throughout the facility to warn others," he said during a memorial ceremony for the victims. "Several Marines scooped up children at a nearby playground, and quickly moved the families out of harm's way. And some Marines made the decision to go back into the fray to search for others."

For now, Marine Corps officials are investigating whether any of the Marines involved in the attack deserve recognition. Maj. Rob Dolan, a spokesman for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, which oversees the service's awards branch, said officials are “gathering facts and first-hand statements about the incident to get a clear understanding of individual actions that occurred that day.” But that will take time, he added, and it's still early in what will be a detailed and deliberate process. “If actions of heroism by individual Marines are confirmed," Dolan said, "appropriate award packages will be generated and submitted for consideration."

As senior military leaders look ahead evaluate that and determine how best way to keep recruiters and other personnel safe, the Marines in Chattanooga are back at work. They're mindful of what was lost — and thankful their lives were spared that day. “Once I got home, I could see the shooting all over the news on TV,” Thompson told the investigating officer. “… At that time, I remember thanking God for looking out for me and to be with the families [of those] who were killed."

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