CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — It took a month for Sgt. Jeff Cantu to think about his car keys.
July 16 was a normal day at work for Cantu, the supply chief of Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marines, stationed at Navy Operational Support Center Chattanooga, until nearly shortly before 11 a.m., when a lone gunman rammed his car through the front gate and opened fire. started shooting.
But To Cantu and his buddiesfriends in Mike Battery, the day is defined by the heroism of the Marines and sailors who put their own lives at risk to save others, rather than looking out for themselves.
"Most of our vehicles were still there — I didn't even think about this until my brother told me last night — most of our vehicles were there but nobody got in their vehicle and left," Cantu recalledsaid in an Aug. 16 interview with Military Times. "They were worried about getting the Marines out. My car was right there, I had my keys on me. We were worried about getting the Marines out."
That simple decision, made without a thought to his own safety, was one of dozens made that day by sailors and Marines to act instead of cower in the face of a terrorist attack that stunned a peaceful community nestled on the banks of the Tennessee River, and prompted a Defense Department-wide review of force protection measures in the United States.
Killed were Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire Wells and Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith.
At the City of Chattanooga's memorial to the fallen five, Maj. Mike Abrams, Mike Battery's commanding officer, recalled the heroism of the day.
"One Marine, with total disregard for his own safety, ran throughout the facility to warn others," Abrams said. "Several Marines scooped up children at a nearby playground, and quickly moved the families out of harm's way. And some Marines made the decision to go back into the fray to search for others."
Cantu, along with two others of his colleagues at Mike Battery, Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Doll and Capt. Chris Cotton, recounted the day of the shooting, shedding new light on the poise and courage of the Marines and sailors at Navy Operational Support CenterOSC Chattanooga.
Many acts of heroism made a difference that day, but few more so than the actions of Lt. Cmdr. Tim White, who officials say used a personal firearm to fire at engage the attacker before he entered the building, Doll said.
"That naval commander doing his portion to throw the guy off — it gave us a little bit more time," he said. "Any type of throw-off as an enemy going in to do what they are going to do — any disruption will change the plan.
"It allowed us a little time. As soon as that took place, Marines took that time to evacuate as best they could — to evacuate the facility. Pretty much just getting everyone out is the priority."
While White was waylaying the shooter, Doll and Cantu ran were going through the NOSC to get Marines out, Cantu recalled.
"We have multiple exits in the facility," Cantu said. "The Marines, when they were exiting the building, passed up an exit. They passed up an exit so they could go get the other Marines out of the building. We could have gone out right away, but we didn't."
The NOSC is situated in a city park with playgrounds and running trails along the river bank. While the Marines were clearing the building Staff Sgt. Wyatt grabbed some junior Marines and told them to clear the neighboring playground, which was packed with kids, and get the kids away from the danger of flying bullets.
"The first Marines that took a bee[-line] out of the facility were junior Marines," Cantu said. "And Staff Sgt. Wyatt told them before they left to push the civilians back, to get them out, and they did. So you are looking at PFCs doing this amazing stuff, with no one to direct it: Just Marines doing Marine stuff."
When Cantu and Doll left, evacuated the facility, they cleared the back fence and hurried the civilians into a utility building about 200 yards down the road from the NOSC.
"Those guys, the lawn care guys, they had a facility already set up," Doll said. "It was a perfect position, perfect posture. So we were able to push all the civilians — we had guys picking up kids, bringing them in — putting them into the break room.
"The break room was awesome, it was cement, all the way around and the door was able to be secured."
At that point, some Marines went out of the break room to set up a defensive position and watch for the gunman approaching. Others gathered food and opened the coke machine to pass out to the civilians while they waited for help to arrive.
Throughout the shooting, infantry training helped the Marines react to the evolving situation.
"We did do a lot of things that you learn at the School of Infantry: cover and concealment, how to move, things like that," Cantu said. "And then, once we got to the facility, once we got the civilians out, then it was almost like setting out a hasty defense.
"You look at avenues of approach, you look at secondary threats. We had, basically sectors, we set up watch, blocking positions: all these things you learn at SOI, and every Marine knows these things, it was really good to see all that in action."
The Marines, along with other NOSC personnel and the civilians from the park, hunkered down waited in the park utility building until help arrived.
'This hasn't hurt us'
After a month, survivors from that tragic It's been more than a month since the shootings and those who were at the NOSC that terrible day are focused on getting back to the mission, even while continuing to mourning for their fallen friends.
While investigators are combing through the background of shooter Mohammed Abdulazeez and seek connections to international terror organizations, the Marines and sailors of NOSC Chattanooga are looking to get back to daily life.
"All the Marines and all the sailors are ready to move back to normal — they are ready to begin operations, ready to get back" said Lt. Cmdr. James Storie, a reserve chaplain who's spent weeks ministering to activated the day of the shootings to minister to the victims' families and survivors. the affected service members.
"I had a sailor tell me — not that he experienced it — but that his memory of the bombing of the [destroyer] Cole was that getting the ship back in service was a priority for the Navy," Storie said. "That's the same they feel now. The sailors and Marines want to get back into service. They want to move forward. They'll always remember, but they are ready to move forward, ready to be normal again."
In the aftermath, the support from the community has buoyed the Marines and sailors of NOSC Chattanooga, said Capt. Cotton, who is an inspector/instructor in Mike Battery.
"Chattanooga is an example for the United States of America," Cotton said. "They are what should happen in a time of adversity — not pulling apart and getting at each other's throats. They pulled together and we couldn't ask for more from this community."
And while the grief is still raw for those left to carry on, the message from the Marines of Mike Battery is clear: that They are back to business.
"This hasn't hurt us," Cantu said. "We mourn the loss of our friends and we feel for the families. But we're Marines. We're Mike Battery. And we are just [as] strong now, if not stronger, than we were before. We are mission oriented. We're always going to be Marines first."