Alexis Deese poses for photo outside her family's home in Sevierville, Tenn., three days before she leaves for Navy boot camp. Deese was scheduled to be in the recruiting office in Chattanooga, Tenn., during the shooting attack that took place on July 16, 2015. She missed the appointment after her mother took the car for work. Despite the attack, she joined the Navy just a few weeks later. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Timothy Walter/Released)

When Alexis Deese graduated from Ooltewah High School a year ago, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.

There was college, of course, but she couldn't make the finances work. In the weeks after she got her diploma, she sat up one night staring at her computer screen at what college programs were available.

"I started looking at programs and all the money that went into it. All the money I didn't have," she said.

But Deese had a neighbor, a soldier in the Army, who wanted to help shape her future and encouraged her to consider enlisting. Between the travel, the education she would receive and the direction she would have, it sounded like a golden opportunity, so she immediately signed up for the Navy.

"It was literally a one-night decision," she said.

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She started attending meetings with a recruiter, hacking her way through the application process and her Military Entrance Processing Station packet. A few weeks later, everything was set for one last meeting before her swear-in date.

On the morning of the meeting, Deese woke up to find that her mother had apparently forgotten about the appointment and had taken the family car to work. She called, asking for a ride, but the meeting came and went while she was stuck at home.

She heard the news a few hours later.

"It popped up on my Facebook feed," she said. "The reports coming in from the news were still very mixed. I just saw there was a shooting at a recruiting office."

As the details of the July 16 attack fell into place, it dawned on Deese that if everything had gone as planned, she could have been caught in the gunfire. In the aftermath, she had to work through what might have been.

"I had a really big, guilty feeling, because those people lost their lives and they've already done so much for everyone," she said. "And then there's me, who hasn't even sworn in yet."

The experience changed her and her perspective on her career path. She was more resolved than ever to make a difference.

"Everyone's always talking about how the world is becoming such an awful place. And things like this are happening, but they're running away from it," she said.

"I want to be who runs into the fire."

A lot has changed for Alexis in the year since the attack. She's not a directionless high school graduate anymore. She's sworn in, made her way through Navy boot camp and soon she'll be a corpsman — a surgical technician.

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In the aftermath of the July 16 attacks, one local man enlists in the Marines in honor of the fallen men

Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley, a Marine recruiter who works in the Lee Highway office that was attacked, said plenty of other recruits over the last year have had some of the same feelings about their decision to enlist.

"We still get people who come in and give support. It's been constant and consistent," he said.

That hasn't quite translated into a surge of applications, but many of them now stem from what happened.

"We haven't really ramped up our numbers since that day, but I will attribute a large portion of the individuals who come in here say the events of July 16 may be one of the reasons they joined."

Capt. Peter Ahching, a commander with the Army's Atlanta recruiting battalion, said it's an admirable thing to sign up in the wake of such violence, and locals continue to do their part.

"A year later, we can look back and say the sons and daughters of Chattanooga have stepped up to serve," he said. "They've answered the call to serve."

Deese said the experience made her stronger, making her want to serve her country more than ever. She said it's one of the best decisions she's made, and she hopes she can live up to the legacy of the men who died that day.

"I want to walk in those footprints and leave something good behind," she said.

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at or 423-757-6731.