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Around The Fleet

Navy Chaplains Offer Support at Memorial

Loss of Chattanooga Military Men Felt By Entire Community

A slow march of visitors lined around a blend of American flags, patriotic balloons, and makeshift signs with messages written to the fallen at the memorial outside the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Everyone's eyes stayed focused on the overflowing ring of gifts and trinkets placed on the grassy island in the middle of the strip mall parking lot. Some knelt to get a better look at writings, while others stood still with distant faces. The circle of visitors remained generally unbroken but when two Navy chaplains came to see the memorial dedicated to Petty Officer Randall Smith, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Lance Cpl. Squire Wells, and Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, who lost their lives on July 16, people were eager to share their thoughts and feelings.

It's such a shock and surprise that something like this would happen so close to where I live," said Mariah Clark, a Chattanooga native. "These people died for our country and they weren't even out of the country."

"It's like one huge family that lost one of its members," said Cmdr. David Hicks, Navy chaplain from Charleston, South Carolina. "And the love the family pulls together to help us through."

As Hicks moved down the line, with people thanking him for his service, he couldn't help but be thankful for theirs. A woman dressed in blue with eyes full of tears stopped him in his tracks to confide.
Link to U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps website

Link to U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps website

"This breaks my heart," said Janet Grey, from Chattanooga. "These families; these kids without fathers."

As Hicks consoled her she reached out and hugged him, tighter with each choked back word. This overwhelming heartfelt appreciation for his presence astonished Hicks.

"Tears, hugs and handshakes of deep, what feels to me, like family appreciation," said Hicks. "The kind of appreciation you only get when its family love. That's what I've been seeing today. One great big family."

The gathering represented America's diversity. Elders walked hand-in-hand with children. Military veterans chatted with teens sporting facial piercings. The crowd consisted not only of locals and citizens from the surrounding areas, but a variety of travelers from as far away as Chicago, and several immigrants including a community from Vietnam that now resides in Chattanooga.

"Family, friends, loved ones, country, freedom; everything is a blessing," said Jay Rohirae.
  • A Sailor comforts a woman at the memorial

    U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Justin Wolpert

  • A man kneels at a memorial site

    U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Class Justin Wolpert

  • People gather around a bunch of American flags at the memorial

    U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Justin Wolpert

Originally from India, Rohirae and his son journeyed from their home in the Smoky Mountains to see the memorial. When they spotted the chaplain, they said it brought them joy to see someone who represented both the Navy and faith.

"Four things I think will help mend the nation are courage, love, hope and faith, said Rohirae."

"We have to remain united," agreed Lt. Joel DeGraeve, Navy chaplain from Columbus, Ohio.

Almost everyone the chaplains talked to had a family member or friend currently in the military. They also engaged with a lot of prior service members who came out to show support for the fallen.

"I served in the Marines for 12 years, and I'm just like all the people here who have come to pay respects," said Karl Shifflett, from Indian Land, South Carolina.

Shifflett, sun soaked from his motorcycle ride from South Carolina, said he was glad to see the chaplains at the memorial and expressed why it was important for the community.

"They know how to talk to people about their feelings and in my opinion it's calming to see someone universally recognized, like a chaplain," said Shifflett.

The chaplains took extra time for pictures and to talk to children who were too shy to ask questions. By the end of their visit, the Chattanooga heat had left their faces burned, and sweat rolled off their brows onto the hot asphalt. However, that was nothing compared to the memories that would be burned in their minds of people coming together in such strong response to such terrible tragedy.
A Navy chaplain comforts a man at the memorial

U.S. Navy photo by MC2 Justin Wolpert