It was a Thursday. It was a hot summer day in July. It was my sister's birthday. It was just a typical day. Until it wasn't. It turned into one of those days that people remember. The one where you can recount exactly where you were and what you were doing and whom you were with when you heard the news. It was July 16, 2015. It was the day that tragedy struck Chattanooga.
The Internet, social media, and cable news informed the world within minutes what would change us forever – that a gunman had brutally taken the lives of four Marines after shooting at two military centers in Chattanooga. Two days later, a fifth victim, a Navy sailor, would be added to the list of casualties.
Our 15-year-old asked why this shooting was different. Why so much national media attention was being focused on our town. Why his friends were texting him about this. “Aren’t there shootings all the time? Aren’t people killed almost every day?” I told him he was right, and how those incidents were no less tragic than the one that happened that morning. I went on to explain that the heightened attention was because this man had specifically targeted and killed members of our armed forces – people who had dedicated their lives to serving this country and to protecting us and our freedom. To protecting him.
The most chilling realization was finding out that the man who did this wasn’t an outsider. He was a neighbor and a community member. He lived in Hixson, went to Red Bank High School, and graduated from UTC. He worked at the mall. And he murdered those five men not just in cold blood, but in plain sight – along roads we travel every day and at places we used to regularly pass without pause or consideration, now serving as memorials and sacred gathering spots for the community.
Eight days after the tragedy, my family and I were headed to New York City for a day before going to Israel for our son's bar mitzvah. It was just a typical trip. Until it wasn't. Our flight from Atlanta to New York was cancelled and I had to beg the Delta agent to book us on a flight that would arrive before Midnight. She finally got us on a flight to Bradley Airport in Hartford, Connecticut. It was 110 miles from New York City, but it was good enough.
After boarding, we were told our plane would have the honor of transporting a Marine. We soon learned it was one of the Marines shot in Chattanooga the week before - Thomas Sullivan. We couldn't believe it. When we landed, the pilot requested that no one get up from their seats. We sat and waited as his fellow Marines unloaded the casket with care and dignity, and gently placed it into the waiting hearse. We watched with sorrow and sympathy as the family gathered to mourn their loss. We then reminded ourselves that cancelled flights and the minor inconveniences of our lives are blessings compared to the despair that others must be feeling.
Sadly, we are a nation that is too often immune to the news of tragedy. It has become more commonplace than exception. It used to be something that happened only in other counties. And then only in big cities. Never in a place like Chattanooga. Until now. States across the country are now increasing security at their military centers in response to the July 16 shooting. Some officials have even been quoted as saying, "We don't want to be another Chattanooga." To them I say, you would be lucky to boast a fraction of Chattanooga's strength, spirit, and sense of faith. Our community is brokenhearted, but we are not broken. In the wake of tragedy we came together without hesitation, because that’s how real neighbors treat each other. That’s how true community members choose to live.
We will never make sense of the events of July 16, but we will always remember our five fallen heroes who sacrificed their own lives to protect so many others: Thomas Sullivan. Squire "Skip" Wells. David Wyatt. Carson Holmquist. Randall Smith. They were beloved husbands, sons, and fathers. They were cherished friends. They were decorated veterans. They were patriots. They were just five typical men who served our country. Until they weren't.