Almost two years after the day terrorism came to Chattanooga, new details are emerging about the tragic events of July 16, 2015. Major Chris Cotton shared new information at the Navy and Marine Corps Medal Ceremony, during which Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan and Staff Sgt. David Wyatt were honored posthumously for their heroics.
We now know it could have been much worse. The gunman was armed with enough ammunition to take out dozens of people. Sadly, he took the lives of four Marines and a Sailor. The actions of two of those Marines surely saved many others.
Major Cotton described a humid summer Thursday morning that was blissfully ordinary. At the Naval and Marines Support Center on Amnicola Highway, it was the final day of an inspection period. Everyone was busy cleaning their gear, taking care of vehicles, and accounting for each item.
As he left for a dental appointment, Major Cotton stopped by Sgt. Sullivan’s office. “I asked him if he needed anything from me before I left,” Cotton said. “He simply smiled, put his hands behind his head, leaned back in his chair, and said, ‘Come on sir, we got this!”
Like many of us, Major Cotton thought about ignoring his phone while the dental technician was taking x-rays. Whatever it is, it can wait, right? But this was no ordinary day. Something told him to glance at the Caller ID.
“It was a new Marine who had just joined the unit, so I answered,” he said. “As I put the phone to my ear, I heard the cracking of shots in the background. A calm, but concerned voice said, ‘Sir, are you aware of what is going on?” I told him no. ‘We have an active shooter, I am trying to account for everyone,’ he said.
Major Cotton jumped out of the dentist’s chair, apologized and immediately headed back to the facility. He was stopped by Chattanooga police, who told him he could not enter. Within minutes, they told him the bad news. “It was gut wrenching,” he said.
As the days passed, funerals were held, families were comforted, and the full story began to emerge. A terrorist had entered the facility, firing shots every step of the way. The Marines who first came in contact with the shooter narrowly escaped as shots whizzed by their heads and debris from the impacts flew through the air.
Two Marines were able to acquire pistols. Sgts. Sullivan and Wyatt were responsible for each man, and began accounting for their whereabouts. “No man gets left behind,” Major Cotton said.
Sgt. Wyatt called 911. Sgt. Sullivan began directing the Marines: “Get over the fence, secure the park!”
The adjoining Tennessee Riverpark was busy with runners, bikers, walkers and families on the playground. There was potential for mass casualties had the park not been secured.
As a Marine started over the fence, he handed Sgt. Sullivan the pistol and said, “You’re going to need this more than me.” The officer replied with a smile, “We got this.”
Realizing that Marines were still in the building, Sgt. Sullivan and another Marine tried to get back inside. Sgt. Wyatt, still on the phone with Chattanooga police, was instructed to turn them back.
Sgt. Sullivan and Sgt. Wyatt then directed the remaining Marines to the motor pool area, attempting to create a barrier between the shooter and the Marines. Both officers directed their men to climb the fence to safety. Under a barrage of gunfire, the officers remained in place. The shooter spotted them. Sgt. Sullivan raised his weapon and attempted to provide cover for his men.
The 911 dispatcher heard a barrage of bullets and a dropped phone. Sgt. Wyatt tried to pull his fellow officer to safety. The dispatcher then reported hearing a moment of silence. Sgts. Sullivan and Wyatt had insured the safety of their men, and in doing so, sacrificed their own lives.
Major Cotton concluded, “I was not surprised to learn it was them who had passed. I knew they would choose others above themselves. Every day I thank God for these men and what they have done for us.”
A crazed man, intent on mass homicide, had succeeded to some degree, killing five service men. We will never know what harm he would have caused had it not been for the courage of these Marine sergeants, and the Chattanooga police officers who were able to corner him and take him out.
On this “ordinary day,” when the forces of evil were unleashed, two unselfish servants took extraordinary action to save their comrades and countless other citizens. They did what Marines are trained to do: take a firm stand and hold your ground. We are thankful for them.