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Instinct, basic training helped Marine save his daughter during July 16 attack

A memorial outside the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., is seen in August 2015. The memorial honors the 4 Marines and 1 sailor who were killed in the shooting at the Navy Operational Support Center Chattanooga on July 16.

JUSTIN WOLPERT/U.S. NAVY

By SHELLY BRADBURY | Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. | Published: September 29, 2015

U.S. Marine Gunnery Sgt. Camden Meyer jumped on top of his 6-year-old daughter and shielded her from bullets when a lone gunman opened fire on his Lee Highway recruiting office in Chattanooga, Tenn., on July 16.

Meyer initially thought someone had thrown a firework into his office when the first bullet hit the wall above his head and a spray of white debris fell on his desk. But then he spotted 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef out the front door, hanging out the side of a silver convertible with an assault rifle aimed at the building.

"Get down!" he yelled.

He grabbed his daughter, Izzy, and hit the deck as bullets pounded into the small office.
Two Marine recruiters and two recruits who'd been sitting in the front of the office —  about eight feet from where Abdulazeez opened fire — ran toward the back. After firing the first shot, Abdulazeez paused for a "few seconds" before opening up with rapid fire.

Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley was hit, struck once in the left thigh. Lance Cpl. Christopher Gilliam, who saw the shooter first and yelled for the group to run, and the two recruits escaped uninjured.

In his office, Meyer tried to keep Izzy flat on the ground. He and another recruiter, Sgt. Winfield Thompson, locked eyes. Thompson looked ready to run but Meyer told him to stay put, according to a U.S. Marine Corps investigation report released Monday.

"I knew the shooter would have to switch weapons, change clips or reload," Meyer told the investigating officer. "After about 7 to 12 seconds, I heard the break in fire and yelled to [Thompson] to run."

He scooped Izzy up, carried her over his right shoulder and all three ran out the back door, following the four others who got out first.

Meyer said his daughter, whom he was watching while his wife ran errands, stayed calm through the ordeal, which lasted between 30 and 60 seconds.

"She wasn't crying," he told the Times Free Press. "She didn't really know what was going on. She just knew that we were moving and Dad was carrying her down the hill."
His daughter was unhurt and life is back to normal for her, he added.

Abdulazeez went on to attack the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve on Amnicola Highway, where he killed four Marines and fatally wounded a Navy specialist. The attack sent shockwaves through Chattanooga and prompted a nationwide debate on how to better protect U.S. servicemembers on U.S. soil.

The Marines' 41-page investigation report, while heavily redacted, shows clearly the chaos that ensued in the minutes after Abdulazeez opened fire on the recruiting offices.

As the Marines and recruits fled the rampage, some took cover in a car parts shop down a small embankment, and some ended up in a cellphone store, according to the report. Cheeley separated from the others and hid alone behind some dumpsters before briefly ducking into a lighting store.

Thompson told investigators he got tangled in the thick vegetation behind the office and was cut by briars. When he did reach safety, he yelled at employees at the business to call 911, forgetting for a moment his cellphone was in his pocket. When he remembered, he called another recruiter who'd left the office early to get a haircut to warn him not to come back. He couldn't get through.

That recruiter coincidentally pulled into the parking lot just as Abdulazeez was pulling out, the report shows, and was able to help in the aftermath of the attack. Within four minutes, the Marines had regrouped. Marine Corps Recruiting Command was alerted to the shooting within 10 minutes.

None of the Marines was armed. Abdulazeez fired the first shot at about 10:45 a.m., according to the report. Hamilton County 911 dispatchers initiated the emergency response at 10:51 a.m.

At least four Marines at the recruiting center had completed annual anti-terrorist training in November 2014, according to the report. The class included training on how to respond to an active shooter and was taught with PowerPoint, video and lecture, according to the report.

Meyer wrote in an email included in the report that the anti-terrorism training was not helpful during the July 16 attack, but rather, basic Marine training and instinct helped him and the others escape. The recruiting office was equipped with shatterproof and reflective glass, but not bulletproof glass.

"We all said kind of that the active shooter training that we received — it was just a class — it didn't help in this situation," Meyer said Monday. "But my Marine Corps training absolutely helped. Seek cover, get down, wait for the fire to stop or pause at least, and then you egress out the back."

The report offers opinions and recommendations, but all are redacted. In the wake of the attack, the Marines have decided not to arm recruiters, despite some calls otherwise. Carrying weapons would "interfere" with recruiters' interaction with the public, Jim Edwards, MCRC deputy director of public affairs, has said.

Retired Gunnery Sgt. Ben Stone, who ran the Lee Highway recruiting center from 2005 to 2009 and retired in April 2015, said he believes the Marines could have stopped Abdulazeez at the recruiting center if they had been armed.

"In my opinion, the time-lapse of him reloading, dropping a magazine, those Marines are skilled enough to have returned fire," he said. "If they had a chance. If not, once he went to leave, those Marines were skilled enough to neutralize him outside before he drove to the reserve center and did what he did there."

Meyer declined to discuss the issue of arming recruiters.

As soon as his daughter was safe, Meyer left her with an Air Force recruiter and ran back to the shopping center to make sure all his men got out alive.

"Watch my daughter; do not leave here," he remembers saying.

Police swarmed the scene, and Meyer began to track down his Marines. He called recruiting command and alerted them to the attack.

Between 10:55 a.m. and 11 a.m., Meyer tried calling the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve on Amnicola Highway.

He kept hitting redial, but no one ever answered.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas.

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