Chattanooga Attack Raises Questions About Off-Base Military Facilities

Marines reservists march in Hixson, Tennessee, on July 24, 2015, while attending the funeral of Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt, one of five service members killed by a gunman. (Marine Forces Reserve photo)
Marines reservists march in Hixson, Tennessee, on July 24, 2015, while attending the funeral of Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt, one of five service members killed by a gunman. (Marine Forces Reserve photo)

As Vice President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Ash Carter prepare for a memorial Saturday to honor the five slain servicemen killed in Chattanooga, Tenn., last month, questions remain about the attack and service members' protection that could have a long-term effect on how the military operates at its off-installation facilities across the U.S.

The July 16 ambush claimed the lives of one sailor, Navy Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26, and four Marines: Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40, a Purple Heart recipient for wounds received in Iraq; Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells, 21; Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, 35; and Sgt. Carson Holmquist, 25.

They were attacked by lone gunman Mohammad Abdulazeez, 24, who fired on the Naval Operational Support Center in Chattanooga. Abdulazeez forced his way onto the facility after shooting at a nearby Chattanooga military recruitment center, where he shot Marine Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley in the leg. The shooter then led police on a chase to the operations support center. Abdulazeez entered the facility with an assault rifle and handgun, killing the five before he was shot and killed by law enforcement.

The Aftermath

In the weeks since the shooting, questions have surfaced.

Would service members be charged for returning fire against Abdulazeez? Will changes be made to force protection levels for "soft" targets like recruiting and reserve centers? Will the attack be classified as a terrorist attack, potentially qualifying those killed and wounded for a Purple Heart?

In the days after the shooting, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that two of the guns recovered in the attacks belonged to service members, one of which was fired by Navy Lt. Cmdr. Timothy White and the other reportedly fired by one of the slain Marines.

Defense Department regulations prohibit service members from carrying weapons on bases when they are not in a combat zone, except for military police and security forces. Last week, a Navy official told Stars and Stripes that White would not be charged. Marine spokeswoman Lt. Col. Tanya Murnock said the Marine Corps investigation "was completed on the actions of the Marines on site during the attack, and all Marines were determined to have acted in the line of duty."

Defense Secretary Ash Carter loosened some of the restrictions against military members carrying weapons at "off-installation" military facilities after significant national outrage that the military in Chattanooga wasn't allowed to carry weapons.

In the weeks after the attacks, local citizens started protecting recruitment centers themselves. The Pentagon pleaded with the public not to stand guard at recruiting offices, "as it could adversely impact our mission, and potentially create unintended security risks," according to a statement released last month.

The services are studying changes they could make to facility security, and their recommendations are due to Carter on Friday. The challenge, one defense official said, is that each of the services have different schedules for weapons training, and some facilities may be staffed by service members who rarely receive or have the need for regular firearms courses.

Question of Intent

In the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress amended the qualifications for a Purple Heart to include domestic attacks. Under the amended qualifications, each service can award Purple Hearts to members wounded or killed by an attacker who "was in communication with the foreign terrorist organization before the attack" or was "inspired or motivated by the foreign terrorist organization" to carry out the attack.

The new qualifications were most recently applied to the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, where the Secretary of the Army determined that Army Maj. Nadal Hassan was motivated by al-Qaida to conduct the April 2009 attack that killed 13 and wounded more than 30, qualifying all of the military wounded to receive the Purple Heart and the civilian wounded to receive the Defense of Freedom Medal.

The Navy and the Marine Corps have prepared paperwork to award the Chattanooga victims the Purple Heart, "but determination of eligibility will wait until all the facts are gathered and the FBI investigation is complete," said Marine Corps spokesman Maj. Christian Devine.

The FBI seeks to determine whether Abdulazeez, who recently traveled to Kuwait and Jordan, was motivated by a terrorist organization. A call to the FBI's field office in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is leading the investigation, was not returned.

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