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Marines, widows lay wreaths at July 16 memorial

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Cathy Wells, center, mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Skip Wells who was killed in 2015 Chattanooga attack, speaks to reporters following Tennessee ceremony. At left is Jasmine Holmquist, widow of Marine Sgt. Carson Holmquist, and Tracy Smith, father of Petty Officer Randall Smith, also killed in the terrorist-inspired attack.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and top state officials on Friday paid tribute to four U.S. Marines and a sailor killed on July 16 in Chattanooga.

"Over the years, we have met families and heard the courageous stories of their loved ones killed in battlefields abroad. But last July, five service members were killed serving right here in Tennessee," Haslam said. "The tragedy in Chattanooga is one of many reminders of the dangers facing our troops today."

It's fitting "we honor those five brave men who lost their lives that day and remember all the men and women who willingly lay down their lives for our freedom," he said.

Officials also paid tribute to a U.S. Army lieutenant killed during World War II, as well as a sergeant killed in Iraq in 2005.

"Those we honor today came from all across this great state and from all walks of life," Tennessee Adj. Gen. Max Haston told attendees assembled on Legislative Plaza before the state's War Memorial Building at the state Capitol. "And they shared some of the same qualities. They embodied courage, pride, determination, selflessness, dedication to duty and a great personal integrity."

All went toward "serving a cause larger than themselves," Haston said. "Memorial Day is not just another holiday. It's about honoring heroes, and the heroes are amongst us today."

Four Marines — Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells and Sgt. Carson Holmquist — were killed at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway in the July 16 attack. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith was mortally wounded and died three days later.

The attack was carried out by 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez. FBI Director James Comey said the attack was inspired by terrorist groups. All five men were later given Purple Hearts.

Family members and representatives of Wells, Holmquist and Smith were presented with Tennessee's Fallen Hero medals, a state memorial flag and irises, the state's flower. Tennessee lawmakers this year changed qualifications for the medal to include military victims of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Families of Wyatt and Sullivan will receive the medals later.

State Veteran Services Commissioner Many- Bears Grinder told attendees the shock of the Chattanooga attack remains.

"Remember the names and faces of each of the young men," she said. "And don't forget about the families."

Among family members attending was Cathy Wells, whose 21-year-old son, Skip Wells, was serving as a cannoneer with Mike Battery in Chattanooga when he was killed.

"I think it's important with Memorial Day that they all be remembered," Wells told reporters. "Not just ours, but all of them being honored."

But such events don't bring closure, Wells said.

"It's a nice gesture, but it doesn't bring our boys back. So all of this, as nice as it is, it doesn't bring them back. We still go home without them."

Wells said her personal support system and the relationships she now has with the families of the other four slain service members have helped.

"It's a bond that we didn't want, didn't need," she said. "But having it now, it's nice. I mean, it's comforting to know they're all going through the same thing. We all have the same struggles and we all share each other. We understand what each is going through."

Tracy Smith, father of Randall Smith, agreed.

"There's five families that know exactly what we're going through," he said. "It's nice to have that support."

Jasmine Holmquist, Sgt. Holmquist's widow, said she was eight weeks pregnant when her husband was killed. But she was able to tell him about the baby during a brief visit home before he went to Chattanooga.

"That's when I found out," Holmquist said. "He was back for two weeks and that's when I told him, thank goodness."

She later gave birth to a daughter who will never know her father firsthand. But she'll learn from her mother.

Asked what she plans to tell her daughter about her father, Jasmine Holmquist said, "well, how amazing he was."

Also honored during Friday's Memorial Day service were two other service members. One was Marine 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr. of Knoxville. He was killed in 1943 during World War II at the Battle of Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands.

The other honoree was Sgt. Gary "Lee" Reese, who died on Aug. 13, 2005, when the Humvee he was riding in struck an improvised explosive device during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on twitter at AndySher1.