Five years ago this Thursday, five servicemen were gunned down in Chattanooga. I can’t imagine what it is like for the families of Gunnery Sgt. Thomas J. Sullivan, Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire “Skip” K. Wells, Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, the five fallen servicemen our city is still grieving. I can’t imagine the parents, grandparents, wives and children hearing the news that the shooter had opened fire in Chattanooga. I don’t know what it was like for them to see the national news, and learn that the shooter was not apprehended, that he was still “active,” and know that their loved ones could easily be in harm’s way.
I got a tiny taste of that feeling the next week. My son and his new bride lived in Lafayette, La., where a man opened fire in a movie theatre, killing two women. A friend texted me early in the morning, asking if I had talked to them; I immediately knew something had happened. Seconds later, I turned on the news and froze. My son was out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico on an oil rig, but as far as I knew, my daughter-in-law, Julianna, was at home in Lafayette. I didn’t know the Grand movie theatre was near their home, or that Julianna had bought me a gift at shooting victim Jillian Johnson’s shop. Frantic when I couldn’t get in touch with either of them, the more I thought about it, the more I thought Julianna easily could have been in that theatre.
My mind raced, imagining every scenario as the newscasters reported this senseless tragedy.
A long hour later I learned Julianna was in Savannah on business, and my son had known this all along.
But for those few endless minutes, time froze, and I was filled with fear and dread. But unlike these minutes for the Sullivan, Holmquist, Wells, Wyatt and Smith families, they didn’t last.
I do not know what it was like for those families on July 16. I imagine they called the young men frantically, making up scenarios as their words went straight to voicemail. I imagine them telling themselves their sons’ cell phones were dead, or that they were too busy to answer.
The city was devastated, and the outpouring of concern and sorrow from citizens of Chattanooga was sizable. One of the families asked to see support along the funeral route, from Fort Oglethorpe to the Chattanooga National Cemetery. To honor this request, I-24 all but shut down. People lined the streets, the interstate, the overpasses, waving American flags, before holding them still and silently saluting.
I saw the letter the mother of one of the men had written about Chattanooga. It was on Facebook, and brought me to my knees. I’ve searched for it since, and can’t find it. She said she was undone by the outpouring of support and compassion and sorrow from strangers. She said people left food at her doorstep – people she’d never met made meat loaf and seven-layer salads and their grandmother’s pecan pie. She said they left letters. And flowers.
In short, this woman was lifted up by the people of Chattanooga. Somehow, she had the ability to be gracious to a city of strangers - to faces she had never seen.
I can’t imagine this either. That after something so horrific as the tragedy on July 16, 2015, that a person could reach out like that. Could break free of the agony of their own tragic loss to acknowledge the outpouring of sympathy from strangers.
But Gunnery Sgt. Thomas J. Sullivan, Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire “Skip” K. Wells, Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith are not strangers to anyone in our city. They are heroes, and will always be remembered.
(Ferris Robinson is the author of two children's books, "The Queen Who Banished Bugs" and "The Queen Who Accidentally Banished Birds," in her pollinator series, with "Call Me Arthropod" coming soon. "Making Arrangements" is her first novel, and "Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity" is a collection of true tales about man's best friend. Her website is ferrisrobinson.com. She is the editor of The Lookout Mountain Mirror and The Signal Mountain Mirror. Ferris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)