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Healing but scarred: Marine wounded in July 16 attack is back to recruiting

By SHELLY BRADBURY | Chattanooga Times Free Press | Published: August 8, 2015

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) — The bullet holes are everywhere inside the Marine recruiting office on Lee Highway.

Bullet holes in the chairs, the desks, the walls, the ceiling, the shelves, the couch where Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley was sitting when a lone gunman blasted more than 30 rounds through the window.

Some of the holes have been patched up now, the tangible reminders of the attack filled in, smoothed out and covered with patches of white primer. Three weeks have passed since 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez rolled up to the offices in a silver Mustang convertible and opened fire from the car on July 16.

Cheeley recounts the details of the attack with practiced candor; he's told the story hundreds of times now.

He was sitting on the couch toward the front of the office when he heard the first shot, saw the spray of glass as the bullet splintered the window. He thought it was a firecracker at first, but Lance Cpl. Christopher Gilliam, also on the couch, yelled for everyone to run.

As they fled out the back, bullets pounded into the office. Cheeley looked back once, saw the silver Mustang and the barrel of the gun. He couldn't make out the shooter's face.

Cheeley didn't realize his leg was bleeding until they were out the back door, and then he dismissed it as a cut, figured it was from from the glass up front. He saw the Mustang drive out of the parking lot as he ran for cover behind some dumpsters.

He returned to the recruiting office once the police got there, but he still didn't believe he'd been shot, even after a police officer told him he had a hole in the back of his leg.

After a couple rounds of X-rays, a team of doctors at Erlanger confirmed that the wound to his left thigh was from a bullet. The wound didn't require surgery and Cheeley was released after a couple of hours.

When he got home Thursday night and undressed, he found a bullet hole in the back of his gym shorts, and that's when the day really hit him.

"I was still in disbelief until when I got home that night," he said. "I saw the hole in the back of my shorts. And then I was like, 'OK, I guess I really did get shot.' And that was that."

He was back at work on Monday. And life quickly returned to normal for the team of five Marine recruiters, beside the memorial out front and the steady stream of well-wishers filling the office with doughnuts and cakes and goodies.

On Friday, the desk up front had two boxes of Dunkin' Donuts and a half-eaten coconut cake. A stack of cards sat unopened on a back printer, and an American flag covered several bullet holes in a cubicle wall.

Cheeley put a recruit through a test, then chatted with another man about signing up. Business as usual, he said. The shooting hasn't changed how he recruits.

And he brushed off the national debate about whether service members such as he should be armed.

"If we're told to carry weapons we will," he said. "If not, then we'll continue to do our job."

At one point Cheeley stepped outside to see Sally Bryer, a civilian who'd been sitting in her car in the parking lot when Abdulazeez pulled up right in front of her and started shooting. She stopped by just to say hello, and thanks.

After the shooting, an ambulance came for Cheeley, and an ambulance came for her -- she thought she was having a heart attack, but it turned out to be a panic attack. On Friday, Cheeley gave her a quick hug then ducked back inside.

As he worked, he bantered back and forth with the other Marines -- good-natured ribbing about all the media attention he's received in the wake of the attack.

For the record, he'd rather have avoided the cameras.

But he hopes the attention on the attack will keep the memory of the five men who died alive.

"I don't think it should fade," he said. "The fact that four Marines and one sailor were killed here in America, I don't think that should ever fade."

The wound in his thigh is starting to scab over. But he'll have a scar.

sbradbury@timesfreepress.com

(c) 2015 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley
U.S. MARINE CORPS

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