MARIETTA, Ga. -- As the motorcade of uniforms, blue lights and tinted windows drove away, the crowd paused, holding small American flags in their hands.
Among the crowd, a couple of women whispered. They heard that inside one of those SUVs sat Cathy Wells, mother of fallen U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells. And inside that car, Cathy wore a white T-shirt with her son's face on it. The shirt read, "My Hero."
That face has been all over the national news since Wells and four other military servicemen died last week in an attack on the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway. For some, Wells' face, like those of the other four men, has come to represent gun laws too strict, or not strict enough. For others, his face represents the human toll of Islamic extremism.
But here at Sprayberry High School in an Atlanta suburb, where about 10,000 people gathered on the football field Tuesday night, Wells had once been just another boy excited about his future. He played clarinet and ultimate Frisbee. He liked World War II history and told his middle-school friends that he wanted to join the Marine Corps one day.
Wells, 21, had come to Chattanooga four days before the attack to train with Mike Battery, a Marine group in charge of artillery. He was the man who kept track of the rounds, charges and powders his groups used. He was supposed to stay in Chattanooga for just two weeks.
Nine days after he arrived, though, his friends and family returned to his high school. They watched a fly-over, listened to his band director and JROTC leaders speak about his life, and saw U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., pay his respects.
They watched as about 200 Patriot Guard Riders enveloped the football field on motorcycles, holding American flags.
They fastened photos of Wells to balloons and released them toward the clouds.
They watched Marines deliver flowers to his mother.
Then, after 45 minutes, the memorial was over. Women hugged. Men shook hands. Kids skipped and shouted each other's names and flirted with one another.
That's what happens after a tragedy, his friends said: You just don't know what to do with yourself after the things you see in movies happen for real. So they simply thought about his life.
They said he stayed upbeat almost all the time, avoiding the gossip that too often wafts through the air of a high school hallway. He used music as an outlet.
"He could put everything out there," said 21-year-old Lindsey Pittman, who became Wells' best friend after they met in the First Baptist Woodstock youth group in sixth grade. "Nobody would know if he had a bad day. He just left it all out on the field."
Pittman said Wells was a dedicated Christian. For hours, they could talk about their faith, what they believed about the world, what they wanted to do with their lives. They called each other brother and sister.
When she heard about the attack in Chattanooga on Thursday, she called Wells what felt like 100 times in two hours. He always called back, almost immediately. And even if he couldn't talk then and there, he would text her, at least, tell her when to expect to hear his voice.
But on Thursday, radio silence. She told herself he was safe. The reserve center must be in lockdown. He must not be allowed to use his cellphone, she thought. No news is good news.
Then, about two hours later, Wells' mother called.
Like her friend, Pittman said she is a Christian.
"At times, it helps," she said of her faith. "But it also doesn't bring him back."
In front of the school, where Wells graduated three years ago, someone planted 23 American flags in the grass. Donny Richardson, 60, a former master Sergeant who said he served as a mechanic during Desert Storm, stood outside the entrance waving his own red Marine Corps flag.
Richardson didn't know Wells. But he lives in the area, and he said Wells' death felt like that of a family member. After his military service, Richardson injured his spinal cord during a fall at work. He can no longer feel his hands or arms.
"This is a challenge for me," he said as he waved his flag for the fourth straight hour that afternoon. "But this is also an honor."
Outside the ROTC classroom at Sprayberry, members of the community left mementos in Wells' honor. They left flags and pinwheels and roses. They left combat boots, camouflage pants, hats reading "Semper Fi." They left a can of peach slices, a blue kickball and notes for Wells' family.
And next to that memorial stood a "missing man table" - white table cloth for Wells' purity, a slice of lemon for his bitter end, salt for the tears of his loved ones.
Wells had wanted to be a Marine for as long as Pittman knew him. His mother had served in the Navy, and he took pride in the idea of serving his country. He went to college at Georgia Southern for one year, but he knew he was wasting his time. He needed to enlist.
And so he did in February 2014. He served in Mike Battery, and even though he was only 21, he took a leadership role with younger Marines. He advised them about how to work near a Howitzer and called them when he heard about drama with their girlfriends.
Gunnery Sgt. Joe Ingram, who is in charge of Sprayberry's ROTC program, said Wells would have one day become a high-ranking officer in the military. He was selfless. He was loyal.
Zack Fleming, 21, who played in the marching band with Wells, said his friend was made for the Marines. He knew it in high school.
Fleming learned about Wells' death on Friday morning while he was at work. He sank to the ground in the middle of a Dick's Sporting Goods store.
"I felt defenseless," he said. "Small. I'm definitely joining the military now."
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6476.
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