POLL: Was Thursday's shooting an act of terrorism?
Twenty-two servicemen were working at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway last Thursday morning, making sure their gear was clean and in working shape.
It was an unusually high number of Marines for a normal weekday at the reserve center.
The station is primarily occupied by Navy staff, but is also home to 10 active duty Marine staff members with the Battery M, 3rd Battalion, 14th Regiment — better known as the Mike Battery.
The number of military members at the Amnicola center may swell, depending on what training takes place any given week. And on July 16, it had.
Members of the Mike Battery were getting gear into order after finishing up their annual two-week training in the deserts around Twentynine Palms, Calif.
It had been a good training period, battery commander Major Mike Abrams told the Times Free Press Saturday, recalling the complicated maneuvers the artillerymen had to make in the midst of fighter jets dropping bombs and infantry coming down the line.
"Our guys did exceptionally well," said Abrams. "They performed at the level of an active duty battery."
And when a lone gunman stormed the reserve center with high-powered guns the morning of July 16, years of such training shaped the Marines' response.
"There were heroic acts by our Marines on that day," said Marines spokesman Maj. Clark Carpenter. "They did exactly what we expect Marines to do. They got their Marines to safety. They took care of their Marines first, and then those Marine leaders went back into the fray to make sure that others were protected. They went back into the fight to try to stop him."
When Americans look back at what happened on July 16, Carpenter says, it's not going to be a story about 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez's shooting spree that left one Navy specialist and four Marines dead.
"It's going to be a story of heroes, with both our marines and our sailors, and without question, the first responders from the police department," Carpenter said.
Neither Carpenter nor Abrams would divulge details of what happened Thursday, citing the FBI's ongoing investigation. But Abrams said that based on conversations he has had with the Marines involved in Thursday's response, he too, "couldn't have been more proud with the way they reacted."
By Thursday night, federal investigators had descended upon Chattanooga. With them was Katherine Smith, special agent in charge with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, along with a team of eight agents.
They are deployed with the Marines and the Navy to conduct major felony investigations for those branches of the military — but also to provide counter-terrorism services and respond to attacks against service members like to the Navy Yard shooting, and even to the Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting, which killed a Navy member.
Amnicola Highway shooting
During the current investigation, the N.C.I.S. will work as a liaison between the military and the FBI and local law enforcement, and has forensics investigators and other agents on the ground.
"This a major event for the Marine Corps and the Navy," said Smith. "This is an attack at home. As such, we are joined with the FBI, partnering with them in this investigation."
The Mike Battery, which is comprised of about 124 to 140 Marines in any given month, is a tight-knit unit, the "pride of our battalion," Abrams said.
The unit was activated twice in the last dozen years, and fought during the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, providing direct artillery support for the entire battle.
During that time, the unit earned its own special call sign —"Pale Horse" — after one artilleryman shouted while the battery was shooting: "Put your head down cause here comes hell!"
Abrams, who is currently stationed in New York but comes to Chattanooga to drill once a month, personally knew the Marines who died Thursday.
Staff Sgt. David Wyatt had been stationed in Chattanooga for about two years. As operations chief, he headed up training for the unit, and in the field he ran the fire direction center — meaning he computes all the data to show "the big guns where to fire," said Abrams.
Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan had only arrived for his three-year post in Chattanooga a few months ago. The battery's senior artillery expert, Sullivan ran the operations of the battery administratively and operationally — "he was in charge of all the guns."
Sgt. Carson Holmquist, a motor transport technician, had just arrived earlier this summer.
On Saturday, the service history of slain Naval Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith had not been released by the Navy, which waits 24-hours to notify the family before releasing information about a fallen member. But friends said he had been in the area for over a year.
Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells was one of nine reservists who were supposed to be in Chattanooga for just a week or so. A junior enlisted service member, Wells, just 21, was a cannoneer — helping to run the cannons.
"They were great people," said Abrams. "They were great Marines."
On Friday, Abrams spent time with all of the Marines' families, whose worlds, he said, were "upside down."
Marines are sending support to help with "anything from helping them mow the lawn to get food — anything that allows them to grieve as they need to," Abrams said.
Besides working with the families, senior military leadership is also trying to respond to the trauma suffered by the other Marine and Navy survivors of the attacks.
On Friday, senior Marines and Navy officials met with those who were there that day and started to gather their stories.
"It was a devastating day for them," Abrams said. "I think there was a level of shock about what happened and what went down that day."
Meanwhile, dozens of Mike Battery Marines from the last 20 years "have descended on Chattanooga" to offer help, Abrams said.
Military officials say they do not yet know the set plans for the fallen men's funerals. But they say they are planning a memorial service of some kind to recognize what happened in Chattanooga.
Part of the healing process, both Smith and Carpenter said, will come from the Chattanooga community
"This is an amazing community," Smith said, gesturing to the bank of flags, wreaths, flowers and mementos that has grown around the perimeter at the Lee Highway recruiting office investigation site. She attended the vigil Friday night, and has seen restaurants set out seats of honor for the victims.
"It truly is a testament to your community, to the patriotism of the community and support to the military."
Abrams said he does not know what will become of the reserve center on Amnicola Highway, but he wants it to continue with business as usual.
"I feel we will move back into the home training center and continue our mission," he said
"The enemies should not take any comfort in what happened," added Carpenter. "There should be no doubt of the Marine Corps ability to complete what this nation asks of them. They are ready to do that at a moment's notice."
Contact staff write Kate Belz at kbelz@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6673.