main story image for facebook sharing

Around The Fleet

Chattanooga Remembers

A city's resolve strengthened in the wake of tragedy

One year ago shots cut the Chattanooga, Tennessee air like a knife as an active shooter made his way through the city's Armed Forces Career Center.

The shooting, by one lone gunman, lasted over thirty minutes and as the air once again stilled five service men had lost their lives.

Today, the Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) and Marine Corps Reserve Center building in Chattanooga is recovering. The building itself is surrounded by a green chain-link fence sparsely decorated with red, white, and blue wreaths, and signs proclaiming support for the U.S. A banner stretching 10-yards is filled with thousands of signatures. Inside, the building is heavily under construction, a renovation plan that has been pushed up a few fiscal years it peppered with bullet holes in the domestic terrorism attack.

The Chattanooga community gathered at the Tennessee River Park to commemorate the loss and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announced a proclamation that July 16 will now be the city's Day of Remembrance.

"This day leads us to ask hard questions," Berke said. "While we've recounted the story of July 16 many times over the past year, the facts fail us in our search for meaning and understanding."

Back at the reserve center, dry wall dust settles slowly in the air and yellow caution tape marking construction areas moves in the air made as construction workers buzz through the building. It is a stark reminder of last year's attack.

On that fateful Thursday morning in July 2015, eight of the NOSC's 11 staff members departed that morning to visit NOSC Knoxville. The building was quiet with only a few staff and reserve Sailors present. Lt. Cmdr. Timothy White, NOSC Chattanooga's commanding officer, had opened his office window to allow in the fresh summer air. Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith, who was on duty that day, was working with reserve Sailors who were there to make up missed drill days.

At about the same time NOSC Chattanooga staff arrived in Knoxville, the silence and peace of that morning in Chattanooga was ruptured by a loud crash and screeching tires.
photo collage of chattanooga rememberance.

What White believed was a car accident on a nearby highway turned out to be an active shooter who had driven his vehicle through the building's gate. The shooter entered the reserve center, shot Smith, and exited a back door to confront Marines outside, killing four: Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Skip Wells, and Staff Sgt. David Wyatt.

Smith died two days later from the wounds he sustained during the attack.

Later last year, the federal investigation concluded the gunman was a radicalized terrorist inspired by terror organizations whose footprint is heaviest in the Middle East.

Now, the NOSC Chattanooga team still works on healing. White said they honor Smith and the four Marines the only way they know how: excellence in mission accomplishment, despite emotional struggles with which he and his staff still grapple.

Personnel Specialist 3rd Class Michael Evans was scheduled to stand duty that day in Chattanooga, but had switched with Smith. He and Chief Aircrew Survival Equipmentman Matthew Goniea, NOSC Chattanooga's command chief, were stunned to learn that an incident had occurred in Chattanooga. At first, Evans said, it was difficult to find factual information and impossible to reach his shipmates.

"There were a lot of rumors and we kept getting texts from random people about it," he said.
About 30 minutes after their arrival in Knoxville, White called Goniea.

"He said we had had an active shooter," Goniea said. "Things just kind of snowballed from there."

Goniea rounded up his staff and the group began the two-hour journey back to Chattanooga.

"On the way back, we were trying to find out as much as we could, using our phones to look up webstreams of the news and the local Chattanooga stations," Evans said.

After the attack, the staff was temporarily relocated to the Tennessee Air National Guard building ten minutes away.

The transition was necessary--the building was part of the post-attack investigation, and renovations were pushed up. In February, the NOSC Chattanooga team returned. Goniea is glad to be back.

"I don't feel like we couldn't heal collectively until we were able to work out of our own facility," he said.

As a result of the attacks, Commander, Navy Installations Command and Commander, Navy Reserve Forces Command have surveyed all off-installation NOSCs for anti-terrorism/force protection vulnerabilities.

At Chattanooga, the NOSC expects $1.2 million in infrastructure improvements, including those cited as vulnerabilities in the survey.

"We have always considered ATFP [anti-terrorism force protection] a top priority, but even more so after last year's attack," said Capt. Matt Berta, commander of Navy Region Southeast Reserve Component Command Jacksonville.
this is a photo collage of chattanooga remembers.

Berta flew to Chattanooga hours after the attack last year. He spent over a month as the on-site commander, assisting White and his staff while serving as liaison between senior military officials in Norfolk, Washington, D.C. and the NOSC.

During that time, he and Goniea spent several off-duty hours with Smith's widow, Angie, and their three children.

"I know his children will never see their father again," Berta said. "But I also know that he is with them every day."

Berta also knew White and his staff faced internal battles with survivor's guilt.

"Even I sometimes think, 'Could I have done more?'" he said.

Despite challenges, the NOSC Chattanooga team has relished the support of Chattanooga community, who White said rallied around Sailors and Marines immediately after the attack with a level of dedication still seen today. However, the staff and reserve Sailors are still working toward normal.

"I think the biggest challenge personally has been dealing with some of the feelings of guilt or wishing I could have done more to make the situation better," White said. "Coming to grips with the fact that I'm just a man, and I don't have control over everything that happened, was a challenge."

The Chattanooga ceremony ended with White, his Sailors, and Chattanoogans sprinkling pink and yellow rose petals from the city's Ross Landing pier to the water several yards below.

"My commitment and the whole unit's commitment is that we want to deny any amount of victory to the terrorist," White said. "We survived the attack, but if we fail our mission or we end up getting sick because we're stressed, bitter or angry, then he can have victory through that, and we won't give him any victory."
Graphic of Chattanooga Strong.