Marine Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley wears his Purple Heart to recognize the bravery of the five service members killed in the July 16, 2015, attacks in Chattanooga.
“I feel honored, but at the same time, I still don’t want to take away from the fallen five,” Cheeley told Marine Corps Times Tuesday after receiving the Purple Heart. “I’ll definitely wear it in honor of the fallen five.”
Cheeley was shot in the leg when Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez sprayed the Chattanooga recruiting office with bullets. Abdulazeez then drove to Navy Operational Support Center Chattanooga, where he killed four Marines and a sailor: Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells and Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced in December that Cheeley and the five fallen service members would receive the Purple Heart after investigators determined that Abdulazeez was inspired by foreign terrorists to carry out the attacks.
After being deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, Cheeley never suspected he would be in a combat situation back home, and that is why he has “mixed feelings” about receiving the Purple Heart, he said.
“Whenever I hear ‘Purple Heart,’ I think of a combat award," he said. "By that I mean being forwarded deployed [in] Iraq or Afghanistan or anything like that — not necessarily here on the home front."
But he also knows the award is about all Purple Heart recipients.
“Those that came before me that truly distinguished themselves in combat and received an award like that, I’ll wear it for them also,” Cheeley said.
Cheeley’s most vivid memories of the attacks include hearing the first gunshot and then not believing he had been hit, he said.
“I honestly didn’t believe it while I was at the recruiting station, waiting on the ambulance,” he said. “I didn’t believe it when I got to the hospital because the doctors couldn’t see anything on X-Rays. They only saw an entrance and exit wound. Not until I got home and I saw the PT shorts I was wearing had a hole in the back right where the wound was, that’s when I believed them. I’m like: OK, I guess it really did happen.”
Since the shooting, people have come into the recruiting station to ask him how the attacks unfolded and if recruiters are allowed to arm themselves, he said.
“I tell them, 'Hey, that’s not really up to me,'” Cheeley said. “I’ll do whatever my chain of command tells me to do. If they say, ‘You don’t need to arm yourselves,’ I’ll just act accordingly.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, Cheeley has been on guard more often, keeping a watchful eye on what is happening around him, he said.
“It made me realize: Just don’t take anything for granted; anything could happen at any time,” Cheeley said.
Cheeley felt it was important to get back to work as soon as possible. He returned to the recruiting station just two days after the attacks. Likewise, he went right back to work on Tuesday after receiving the Purple Heart.
“My whole thought process behind it was: I still have a job; I’m still a Marine Corps recruiter, and who knows, maybe one day I might recruit the next Gunnery Sgt. Sullivan or Staff Sgt. Wyatt or the other three fallen,” he said.
Cheeley also wants to show that he will not be fazed by the terrorists whose ideology fueled the Chattanooga attacks, he said.
“After hearing stories from the Reserve center that some of those individuals actually went back into the fight, knowing that they were putting their lives in jeopardy, it is extremely important for me to get out there and just continue my job and let them know: Yes, you kind of shook the Marine Corps that day, but you didn’t stop us. We’re still moving forward.”