Navy veteran at Las Vegas attack says it was worse than a war zone
By MATTHEW ORMSETH | The Hartford Courant (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 5, 2017
At first, Frank Vealencis thought it was a flashback from his military days. But what sounded like a barrage of gunfire was so unremitting, he thought, no one who knew how to shoot would shoot like that.
Fireworks? A drive-by?
Just 30 seconds prior, Vealencis, a Seymour native and 23-year Navy veteran now living in Las Vegas, had left the Route 91 Harvest Festival’s main stage to hit the john.
Two decades of military service had left Vealencis walking with a cane and braces on his feet, and so on Sunday night he and his wife Tammy were watching Jason Aldean from an elevated platform, not far from the front-row VIP section, that was set aside for people with disabilities.
They were great seats, Vealencis said, and when his wife got up to use the restroom a few songs into Aldean’s set, he wanted to stay and make sure nobody took them.
But the person sitting next to him told him to go; she’d look out for them, she said, and draped a bag over their seats. And so Vealencis went with his wife to the restrooms, half a minute before Stephen Paddock began one of the worst mass killings in American history.
From the portable toilet the gunfire – was it gunfire? – was hard to pick out.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m losing my mind,’” Vealencis said by telephone from his Las Vegas home. “And then I was thinking, ‘Who lets off that many rounds with an automatic weapon?’ In training, we’re trained never to do that – your weapon overheats, there’s accuracy issues, and it starts to hurt.”
And then he saw that people were running, and that some of them were bleeding.
“I started pounding on the Port o Potty door, telling [my wife] she had to get out,” he said. They ducked behind a steel storage container, still unsure what was going on. Vealencis wondered if it was a drive-by shooting – they were in Vegas, after all, a city prone to sudden and savage acts of violence.
But when Vealencis peeked around the storage container, he knew this was no drive-by.
Bodies littered the wide-open stretch of asphalt between them and the Mandalay Bay, where Paddock, perched in a 32nd floor suite, had unleashed a withering assault on concertgoers below.
“Between me and the Mandalay Bay, it was clear as day,” Vealencis said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of anything to hide behind.”
Whenever the shooting paused, he peeked around the storage unit, looking for a way out or something more substantial to hide behind. He found neither – only something far grimmer.
“Every time you peeked it seemed there were less and less people,” he said. “And it wasn’t because they had run. It was because they were on the ground.”
The scene didn’t bring back memories of combat, he said, because it was nothing like a warzone. In 1992, Vealencis had enlisted two weeks after graduating from Seymour High School. For the next 23 years, he flew in Navy planes as an air crew mechanic, deployed to Iraq in 2008 and retired in 2015 as a chief petty officer.
But this -- he’d never felt so defenseless, his sense of security so obliterated.
“In combat, you’re expecting the unexpected. But this – you’re at home. You’re at home in America.”
He was pinned down with nothing to shoot, no one telling him whether to run or to hide or to help the injured.
He wanted to help them. They were sprawled on the asphalt between him and the Mandalay Bay; some of them were crawling. He wondered if he could live with himself, knowing he’d left them. And he wondered if he could live with himself, if he left his wife and something happened to her, at a festival whose tickets he’d bought for her birthday, no less.
“Twenty three years in the military, I wish I could have done more,” he said. “But in Iraq, you kind of knew what to expect. And you didn’t have your loved ones with you.”
Vealencis called his step daughter, told her he loved her and that they hadn’t been shot, and grabbed Tammy. They made for a fence – Vealencis hobbling with the braces and cane slowing him down, Tammy behind him, still paralyzed with shock. They followed the fence until they found a weak spot, enough of a gap between asphalt and chain link to squeeze under. On the other side, they cut through some parking lots and tried to get off the strip.
Every time they crossed passed with other concertgoers, Vealencis heard something different: There was a second shooter at the MGM. No, it was the Motel 6. No, it was the MGM and the Motel 6, and a fourth shooter at the airport.
Vealencis had gone through active shooter drills at a San Diego naval base after the Sept. 11 attacks, and it seemed to him like Vegas was under a full-scale terrorist assault. He had no idea which direction to turn; the threat, it seemed, was on all sides.
He and Tammy finally made it to safety when they got to a Vons supermarket off the strip; from there, they hailed a Lyft back to their timeshare.
On Tuesday morning, he logged onto Facebook, needing to put down his thoughts. He ended up writing nearly 2,000 words.
“I wrote it for myself, more than anything,” he said. “I had to let someone know what happened. Because it was something nobody should ever have happened to them.”
He is haunted by what might have happened, had his wife not needed to use the restroom, had the person next to him not offered to save his seat.
“If I was in those seats,” Vealencis said, his voice trailing off. “How many of those people, sitting in those wheelchairs on that raised platform, didn’t get out?”
The next day, someone told him it must have seemed “like a war zone.”
“And that set me off,” he said. “There’s no comparison. Overseas, we’re carrying, everybody’s carrying. We can fire back; we know who to call, and they’ll tell us what to do. People called this a war zone – I wish it was.”