Sunday, July 26, 2015

In Wake of Chattanooga Attack, A Community Mourns Fallen Marine

In the northern suburbs of Atlanta, locals reflect on the life of one of five slain in the July 16 terrorist attack. 

A memorial placard was placed inside the visitor's center at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park to honor local Skip Wells. The 21-year-old was one of five United States military personnel killed in the July 16 Navy Operational Support Center attack in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Photo Credit: James Swift)

By: James Swift

KENNESAW, Ga. -- Just two days after a mass shooting claimed the lives of five servicemen in Chattanooga, Tenn., the American flag at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park was flown at half staff.

The attack on the naval reserve hit close to home for many in the metro-Atlanta community. One of the five killed in the incident was Lance Corporal Skip Wells, a 21-year-old Marine who graduated from Sprayberry High School in 2012.

“He was just a first class guy,” said 20-year-old Nolan Opp, who had known Wells for nearly a decade. “He was witty and he was sort of a clown, but he was really smart and he always cared about others … he never put himself before anyone else.”

To raise funds for the Wells family, Opp arranged a memorial hike up Kennesaw Mountain on July 18. At that same park, Wells had once volunteered as a cannoneer.

“He was a great leader, and everybody looked up to him,” Opp said. “The entire community is shocked by this, and it is devastating.”

Even in the sixth grade, Opp said Wells knew he wanted to enlist in the military. By the time he joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) program at Sprayberry, Opp said Wells had has eyes firmly set on becoming a part of the United States Marine Corps.

“He just wanted to defend his country,” Opp said, “and the people he loved and cared about.”

Remembering Skip

As a freshman at Sprayberry High, Evan Roxbury, 18, shared an ROTC class with Wells.

“He was like the happiest person ever,” he said. “I never saw him down and he was always trying to help people feel better about themselves.”

As part of the school’s ROTC program and marching band, Roxbury said Wells was constantly engaged in local community services and events. Even after he graduated, Roxbury said Wells made frequent return visits to the school.

To honor Wells' legacy, his alma matter held a candlelight vigil on July 21. Despite stormy weather, the ceremony was attended by hundreds of mourners.

Alysa Brimacombe, 22, said she was close friends with Wells. The Stone Mountain, Ga. resident recalled his selflessness at a cookout the two attended.

“They had made cheesy grits and my stomach started hurting,” she recollected. “Instead of just being like ‘go lay down, you’re fine,’ he came with me and just sat there for two and a half hours making sure I was OK.”

Caleb Wheeler, 38, is a “living historian” at Kennesaw Mountain Battlefield National Park. Had his young life not been cut short, he said he believes Wells would have had a long, storied career in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The last time Wheeler spoke with Wells was at a rained out Independence Day parade. He recalled playfully chiding Wells for being “out of uniform” by wearing his USMC slicker.

Long-time friend Nolan Opp arranged a memorial
hike fundraiser to benefit the family of Lance Corporal
Skip Wells, who was among five killed in a terrorist attack
in Chattanooga, Tenn. on July 16.
 (Photo credit: James Swift)
“He was like ‘look, I’ve earned the right to wear this Marine uniform,’” Wheeler said, “‘and on the 4th of July, by God, I’m going to do it.’”

Living historian and retired police officer John Tolbert, 56, recalled Wells as an energetic and highly motivated young man, with an impressive knowledge of artillery.

Tolbert said Wells joined the Marines because he viewed his country as something much larger than himself -- and that was something he was willing to sacrifice his life to protect.

Wells' death, he said, is not just a crushing blow for Cobb County. He considers it a tragic loss for the entire nation.

“We have lost a devoted serviceman and a devoted patriot, and each time that happens in our country," he said, "it’s a loss for all of us,"

Shock and Outrage

Atlanta radio personality Kim "The Kimmer" Peterson made a guest appearance at the Kennesaw Mountain memorial hike. Known for his aggressive conservative political views, the former Marine and Vietnam War veteran attended the event with two handguns at his side. 

"July 16 was another 9/11," he said. "I was furious and I wanted to kill, and I don't mind saying it ... the more who die to avenge Skip's and all the other Marines' deaths, the better."

Like many in the local community, Roxbury said he was shocked when news of the Chattanooga terrorist attack came in. 

"I didn't know it was going to affect me as much as it did," he said. "I never thought it was going to be somebody I knew."

Tolbert said he was devastated when he heard Wells was among those slain in the shooting. 

He choked up while discussing one of his last encounters with Wells. 

"It's very sad for me because I gave him a pair of cowboy boots not that long ago," he said, "and I just don't like the fact that he didn't get to wear them very long." 

Wheeler said he was on his way to a job interview when he heard about the attack. Knowing Wells was in Chattanooga for two weeks of drills, he immediately turned around. 

Although extremely worried, Wheeler said he was somewhat assuaged by the low probability that Wells was among those murdered.

"A battalion-strength artillery unit is probably around 150-to-200 personnel," he said. "What's the chances that one of your young close friends, who you considered a little brother, was one of those causalities?"

It was an excruciating 10-hour wait before Wells' death was confirmed. When Wheeler learned that his friend was killed, the 10-year Army veteran broke down and wept.

"I had nothing but pure heartbreak," he said, "that I wasn't able to go to Chattanooga to assist."

The Gun-Free Zone Debate

Under U.S. Department of Defense (D.O.D.) policy, only military police and law enforcement officials are authorized to bring guns onto federal property. Had the military personnel at the reserve center been allowed to carry firearms, many attendees at the hike said they believed the massacre may possibly have been averted.

Opp said he believes all military personnel, active duty or reserve, should be allowed to arm themselves at recruiting stations and reserve bases. 

"It doesn't matter if you are 21 or if you are 18, if you are in the military and you've done basic training, you have the right to have concealed carry on you," he said. "I guarantee you if he had some kind of weapon on him, or any of the other recruiters that were there had weapons on them, it would have at least minimized it."

Regarding his stance on the issue, "The Kimmer" minced no words. 

"The dipshits at the Defense Department have not allowed weapons [so] there are gun-free zones at recruiting stations, naval reserve centers [and] outside places near bases," he said. "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. One of the Marines killed was a double combat veteran, a Purple Heart recipient ... how in the world could a combat veteran like myself not be allowed to have a gun anywhere, anytime?"

Roxbury also said he believes the "gun-free zone" policy may have cost the lives of five U.S. military members. 

"Without the guns, they are pretty much helpless," he said. "If they had guns as soon as they started shooting, something could have been done about it, but it was too late for that."

Although Wheeler said he believes weaponry should be accessible at bases and reserve centers, he also said his friend's death has not changed his perspective on armed military personnel. 

"I do believe there should be arms available -- say, like a staff duty desk at ether your battalion level or brigade level, or at the road guard level," he said, "but every service member, I don't personally believe should be carrying a side arm."

Despite the D.O.D. provisions, multiple military reports confirmed that a commanding officer at the reserve center returned fire during the attack. They also confirmed reports that a privately-owned handgun was recovered from the scene of the crime, which may have belonged to one of the Marines slain in the shooting. 

The War on Terror Hits the Homefront

Losing a local in an attack so close to home had many attendees rethinking their views on the War on Terror.

"It can happen at a recruiting station here," Roxbury said. "Now I realize it can happen anywhere."

Opp said the threat posed by radical Islamist groups requires immediate military action. "ISIS is a bigger threat than people think," he said, "and I strongly believe we need to go over there and take them out, and take them out now."

Peterson said although the Chattanooga attack demonstrates the imminent danger of extremism, he does not expect the U.S. government to make any sweeping changes in its wake. 

A memorial display for Lance Corporal Skip Wells at 
Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.
(Photo Credit: James Swift)
"We’re not doing anything the right way, we’re not going after ISIS, we’re reacting to ISIS,” he said. “These lone wolves will do anything in the name of Allah, like they slaughtered those Marines. Nothing has changed in the War on Terror ... we’re not winning the War on Terror, it’s a joke.”

An Iraq War veteran, Wheeler said he learned many years ago that the War on Terror was an "asymmetrical" battle. More than ever, he said U.S. citizens have to be on the lookout for potential terrorist activity. 

"You have always got to be completely vigilant, and on guard and unfortunately, suspicious of anyone who would fit a profile," he said. 

Had Opp had the opportunity to confront his friend's murderer, he said he would have asked him why he felt the need to take so many innocent lives. 

"What was his reasoning?" he asked. "That's really all I can say." 

Roxbury, however, had an entirely different message for Mohammad Abdulazeez -- "go to hell," he simply stated. 

Had Peterson had a chance to speak with the 24-year-old gunman, he said few words would have been exchanged.

"I would have shoved his butt full of bacon and I would’ve said ‘you’re about to roast in hell you son of a bitch,'" he said, "and pulled the trigger, several times."

Honoring Skip's Legacy

The best way to pay tribute to Wells, Tolbert said, is to improve security at domestic military installations and offices.

"These were considered to be soft targets, and we’re having more of this lone wolf terrorism activity,” he said. “We need to eliminate anything as a soft target, and make sure it is adequate enough to protect anything at the threat level of a terrorist attack like this ... if that means that at every institution we need to put up better barriers, harder fences and provide armed security at these bases and installations like we do overseas, that makes sense to me.”

Roxbury said he just wants locals to never forget Wells' sacrifice, or the great person he was. 

Peterson, however, suggested that Wells be honored in a different fashion. “Get yourself a gun, fly the flag and act like patriots,” he said, “and make sure people know.”

To commemorate Wells, Opp also said he wants to see his friends and neighbors flying Old Glory. 

"I want to see every single house have an American flag up, shining and blowing in the wind,” he said. “To me, it's not the wind -- it’s the last breath of our soldiers, warriors, marines and sailors who have passed away serving this country.” 

Whether it is for the military or civic groups, Wheeler said he believes the best way to honor Wells is to do what he loved doing himself -- volunteering. 

"As a society that’s all about 'me,' Skip was all about what I can do for you, and I think that is the greatest thing that can come from Skip’s untimely departure," he said, "to take the spirit of who Skip was and apply that to our lives." 

Uncommon Journalism, 2015.

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