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Father Recalls Sailor Killed in July 16 Attack

Investigators walk by the entrance of a Navy and Marine center in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.(AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
Investigators walk by the entrance of a Navy and Marine center in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.(AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Just about every Saturday morning, Tracy Smith takes his 5-year-old grandson to Waffle House for breakfast and then visits his son's grave in the Chattanooga National Cemetery.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith was mortally wounded on July 16, 2015, during a terrorist attack at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on Amnicola Highway.

Randall hung on for almost two days. And before he died in the early morning hours on July 18, Tracy Smith promised his son he'd do whatever he could to take care of Randall's wife, Angie, and their three young daughters.

Four months later, Tracy packed up his house in Ohio, got rid of most of his stuff, left his manufacturing job and moved 500 miles to a townhome in Rossville, Ga., with his daughter's son, whom he is raising.

He had to be here. For Angie, for the girls, to do whatever they needed -- whether it was babysitting during a grocery run or taking a little one out for a movie and a Happy Meal on a bad day.

Tracy, who took a job as a custodian, still hasn't completely unpacked. The townhome's white walls are bare, except for Randall. A polished, carved wooden disk commemorating his son hangs above the couch: "PO Randall Smith," it reads. "An American Hero." A folded American flag encased in a wooden triangle sits on a shelf. Two paintings of Randall hang in the upstairs bedroom. One of those just showed up on Tracy's front step after the shooting, postmarked from Utah, no name or return address.

Chattanooga is where Tracy will stay.

"I feel connected to him here," he said. "Because this is where he flourished and grew and started living up to his potential. There were connections to him in Ohio, but they were of him as a kid, as a teenager. Not as a man, and a parent, and a husband. And that means a lot."

Saturday would have been Randall's 27th birthday.

On Saturday, the nine-month anniversary of the attack, Tracy will run a 5K in the Chickamauga Chase, an annual set of races through Chickamauga Battlefield.

The park is where the Marines who survived the attack went to mourn and begin to heal in the days after July 16. It's been a part of the Smith family's lives since before the shooting, and after it.

This year, the race is dedicated to the men who died in the attack, race director George Skonberg said. He invited the families of the men who died to attend, free of charge, and extended the same offer to service members involved in the attack.

"I hope that it will provide their families a little closure," he said.

---

Tracy isn't a runner.

On Saturday, he's just hoping to make it to the end of his 5K before the 45-minute time limit.

"I'm running the 5K," he said, then corrected himself and laughed. "Well, I'm attempting to run the 5K."

Randall, though, was a runner and participated in cross- country in high school. And he was fast, especially on the baseball field, where he spent much of his time growing up. He once led their six-county area in steals.

In his late teens, Randall got in trouble for underage drinking at a party. Afterward, he told his dad the cops nabbed him only because he tripped on another guy. Otherwise, he said, they'd never have been able to catch him.

That was the only time Randall was ever really in trouble as a kid, Tracy said. He was headstrong, but a good kid. He started college to play baseball but dropped out within just a few weeks, after a coaching change and a shoulder injury.

Tracy didn't know Randall joined the Navy until Randall came home and told him he'd already signed the papers. Tracy was proud, and a bit relieved. The Navy was probably the safest branch of the military to join, he reasoned.

Randall married Angie on the day he graduated boot camp. Those were the best two decisions he ever made, Tracy said.

Family became the center of Randall's world. He adored Angie, doted on his three daughters.

"He loved the Navy, but it wasn't who he was," Tracy said. "He was a husband and father, and just happened to be a sailor."

Tracy and Randall spoke on the phone a few times a day after Randall moved to Chattanooga in July 2014. They'd talk about the Houston Astros or Duke basketball. And no matter how late an Astros game ran, Randall would call Tracy afterward to recount the win or bemoan the loss.

Tracy made the drive from Ohio every couple of months to see everyone. He and Randall spent about three hours in Randall's backyard putting together a swing set for the girls in the sweltering July heat. They'd grill out, and Randall would cook the meat.

"C'mon, Trace, are those not the best ribs you've ever ate?" he'd boast to his dad. "You know they are."

---

July 16 began like any other day.

Tracy went to work. He turned off his cellphone, something he didn't normally do, so he could work without interruption. Then he got a call that there was an emergency.

Randall had been shot multiple times. He'd just gone into surgery.

Tracy picked up his grandson from day care and hit the road, heading down Interstate 75. The news was all over the radio, so Tracy turned it off. They drove most of the trip in silence.

They sat for an hour in Cincinnati's rush-hour traffic. Randall's pastor called him with updates during the eight-hour trip. When Tracy reached Erlanger at about 11 p.m. that night, Randall was out of surgery, in the intensive care unit.

All staffers Tracy saw at the hospital had a 6-inch American flag tucked into their scrubs.

Around 1 a.m., Tracy took his grandson to a hotel for a couple of hours of sleep. But Tracy couldn't stay away, and they soon returned to the hospital. He stayed with Randall until the end.

He is grateful to every first responder who helped keep Randall alive for those precious hours.

"It gave us hope," he said. "And sometimes, I won't speak for anybody else, but for me, some days I feel guilty compared to the other families, because I got to say goodbye. As hard as this has been, I can't imagine not having the opportunity to say goodbye."

The day Randall died, Tracy walked into a tattoo shop and got a U.S. Navy tattoo on his left arm.

Earlier this year, he added another on his right arm -- a battlefield cross with his son's name and rank.

The tattoo artist wouldn't let him pay for either.

---

Sometimes it feels like July 16 was yesterday, Tracy said. Sometimes it feels like a long, long time ago.

And sometimes, it still feels like a dream, like something he might wake up from.

But as the months have ticked by since Randall's death, Tracy has begun to realize the finality of his son's absence. He'll never again be able to pick up the phone and talk with Randall about the Astros. They won't go to another ballgame.

"You do what you need to do to get through the day," Tracy said. "And sometimes you think it will change and get better, but then the next thought is, 'But he's never coming back.'"

Everywhere Tracy goes in Chattanooga, he sees "Nooga Strong" T-shirts and bumper stickers.

"For me, it's an encouragement," he said. "You want to feel like your child was important and to see that other people haven't forgotten is comforting in a way."

That's part of the reason he wants to run in Saturday's race. It's not about him, not at all. Not one bit.

It's a way to remember not only Randall, but also Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Lance Cpl. Skip Wells and Staff Sgt. David Wyatt.

And beyond those brave men, the race through an old battlefield represents an even larger struggle, Smith said.

"Running through the battlefield is a reminder of the turmoil and strife we've gone through as a country," he said. "Whenever anything happens like what happened last year, we rally around each other and become one again. So I want to do it for that."

---

Sitting on his couch in his little townhome, wearing a Nooga Strong T-shirt, Tracy shakes his head.

Who would have thought it'd be Chattanooga?

Randall spent years on a ship without a scratch.

And then, Chattanooga.

Tracy hopes Randall's actions -- and the actions of all the people who were attacked that day -- will inspire a new generation of soldiers and sailors and Marines.

"Their stories didn't end, because I know this will inspire someone else to join," he said. "I'll never know who, but I know this: their stories aren't done."

He's seen that resilient spirit already. At a ceremony around Christmas where Tracy spoke, a woman who was just about to graduate from boot camp approached Tracy, emotional.

"It's OK," she told him, "We have the watch."

It's what the Navy tells sailors when they retire: well done, rest easy, we'll take it from here.

Recounting that moment, Tracy pauses to collect himself.

"I don't know why that phrase gets me, but it gets me," he said. "It rips my heart out every time I hear it."

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