Five years ago: Tragedy and tribute

The silver-haired man stood on a stage in an arena in which 3,000 gathered, speaking directly to two dozen people. He talked for 24 minutes, pouring out his own heart and touching your own, were you among the 3,000.

I’ve vowed to stay away from politics on this new blog experiment of mine. No use provoking the same sort of “stick to sports” vitriol I used to get from the trolls hiding behind their anonymity in the comments section.

But it was five years ago, on Aug. 15, 2015, when that man spoke in Chattanooga, the city where I was raised. And what he said transcends the bitter partisan politics in which he finds himself now aswirl.

“My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?” he captioned his senior photo.

To set the story: On July 16, 2015, a young man named Mohammad Adbulazeez – who had accepted a diploma while walking across that very stage three years earlier – went on a shooting spree. First, he targeted a military recruiting center, but no fatalities were incurred. He then drove his rented convertible Mustang 7 ½ miles, along a route I can close my eyes and see every inch of the way. He pulled up at the Navy Operations Center on the banks of the Tennessee River, opening fire and killing five service members. Adbulazeez was killed by police.

A reporter found an old yearbook from Red Bank High School, his alma mater. “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?” he captioned his senior photo.

A gnawing desperation that would eventually lead him to commit murder? The immature humor of a high school kid? Fear that was created by being different? We’ll never know what prompted those words any more than we’ll never get a handle on what prompted his actions.

I talked my bosses into letting me drive to Chattanooga to write about the shooting. I’m as proud of that work as anything I ever wrote for the newspaper. As it happens, my piece on the service was the penultimate column I produced, being informed three days later that having a “voice” in Huntsville was not something they felt necessary “going forward.” (You can link to some of the work here and here and here; I don’t think I get retroactive credit for clicks baited.)

Only 10 days earlier, he delivered the eulogy for an Iraqi war veteran, his own son, a 48-year-old who died from a brain tumor.

I talked with the chief of police, trying to balance the emotion with professionalism. I talked with parents in the parking lot of the recruiting center, trying to figure a way to make sense of it to their children. One of the kids was 5 years old, and wore a plastic Army helmet and camouflage. He’d be 10 now. Wonder what he remembers? Wonder what he thinks now?

The memorial service was at the UTC Arena. They did the Last Roll Call, a solemn ceremony, in honor of Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Logistics Specialist Second Class Randall Smith and Lance Cpl. Squire Wells.

The silver-haired man would have been understandably drained by memorial services as he rose to speak. Only 10 days earlier, he delivered the eulogy for an Iraqi war veteran, his own son, a 48-year-old who died from a brain tumor.

He looked at the family gathered near the stage and spoke individually of each Marine.

Sullivan, “with a Purple heart and heart of gold.” Wyatt, who as a camp counselor saved a young man from drowning. Holmquist, the son of a Marine, “a Marine before he ever took the oath.” Wells, a baseball star. Smith, whose friend said “was always looking out for the other guy.”

“I didn’t know them personally,” the silver-haired man said, “but I knew them. (They were) confident, committed, determined, trustworthy passionate and always loyal. I knew them. They were my son, and so many other sons I know.”

Then Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the other 3,000 gathered in the arena.

“Our national character is no match for the cowardice and perversion that we face,” he said. “These perverse ideologs, warped theocrats, they may be able to inspire a simple lone wolf to commit a savage act. But they can never, never threaten who we are.

“We have a message for those perverted cowards around the world: American never yields. Never cowers, never stands down. (America) endures. Responds. And always overcomes. For we are Americans. And never, never underestimate that. It’s always been a bad, bad bet to do that.”

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