'Military Training Kicked In': Marine Saves Woman in Vegas Shooting

Lance Cpl. Brendan Kelly and Renee Cesario (Facebook via Love What Matters)
Lance Cpl. Brendan Kelly and Renee Cesario (Facebook via Love What Matters)

Renee Cesario had only met Lance Cpl. Brendan Kelly earlier that day, but now she believes she owes him her life.

In a post that rapidly went viral on the Facebook Page "Love What Matters," the 23-year-old recounted the quick actions of the Marine reservist, who pushed her to the ground and protected her with his body during the deadly Oct. 1 mass shooting at a Jason Aldean concert on the Las Vegas Strip.

"Before I knew what was going on, Brendan tackled me down to the ground and covered me from the fire," Cesario wrote in the post. "He looked at me and said, 'We have to get out of here. We can't stay here. It's not safe.' Then he pulled my arm up to get me out of the piles of people ... The whole night he didn't leave my side."

It's one of many stories of bravery to come out of a horrific night that left 59 dead and more than 500 wounded after a lone gunman, Stephen Paddock, opened fire above the crowd from a room in the Mandalay Bay hotel.

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Kelly, 21, told Military.com on Wednesday that he went to the concert with two friends, both former military, and had ended up near the front of the stage with Cesario, whom he had met hours before.

A forward observer with the 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company out of Bell, California, Kelly had made a spur-of-the-moment decision to make the trek to Las Vegas the Friday before the concert.

Video taken by Cesario shows Kelly and her grinning and singing along to the Jake Owen song, "Barefoot Blue Jean Night."

But suddenly, Kelly realized something was not right.

"I heard the first few, what sounded like firecracker pops," he said. "When the music began to get muffled and off-beat is when I realized that maybe something wasn't going according to plan."

Instinctively, he said, he grabbed Renee, threw her down and covered her 5' 6" frame with his 6' 3" body to protect her from bullets or ricochets. Kelly said he wasn't consciously processing events at this point; he just did what he felt he needed to do.

"It was fight or flight at that point," he said. "There was no thinking involved; it was just muscle memory."

Eventually, he said, he began to take in what was happening and realized that people as close as 10 feet away were on the ground, wounded by gunfire.

"At that point, it's figuring out an escape plan, knowing that it's either going to be you and her together on the ground, or you and her together leaving as fast as you can," Kelly said.

'I Felt 100 Percent Responsible for Her'

"There was never an option for me to leave her. I felt 100 percent responsible for her, seeing that she wasn't around any of her friends," he said. "I had gotten separated from two of my good buddies so she became my responsibility, and I knew I had to get her out of there by whatever means necessary."

They were on the ground for less than two minutes, but it felt like much longer, Kelly said. Then he grabbed Cesario's arm and ran for the concert venue exit.

Cesario told Military.com that, amid the adrenaline and crisis environment, she felt as if she were running in slow motion

"I remember thinking I felt so bad because I felt like I was slowing him down," she said. "I for sure think if I had stayed with my friends or if I had been with anybody else I wouldn't have made it out. I was frozen in fear; I didn't know what to do. I feel like he was sent from God."

All of Kelly's and Cesario's friends made it out of the concert safely, though one of Cesario's friends had to get stitches after being trampled by other concertgoers, she said. Kelly's two buddies stayed in the area to help first responders, he said, and assist shooting victims.

Looking back, Kelly said he is glad for what he was able to do and only wishes he could have done more for other victims of the shooting.

"I would definitely say the military training kicked in, and I wouldn't say that I feel like a hero, but I just know that what I did was what I was trained to do," he said. "I've always been protective, and that just kicked in within my nature."

'Bonded for Life'

To date, Cesario's account of what happened has been shared nearly 180,000 times on Facebook and has received nearly 640,000 responses. Comments on the post quickly escalated from those proclaiming the crisis the start of a beautiful romance to those offering to pay for the couple's (completely theoretical) wedding.

"I think the fact it went viral is a testament to the people who want to hear a feel-good story despite the terrible tragedy," Kelly said. "There's a lot of hopeless romantics out there but, you know, I don't really think I have a comment on that at this time."

Cesario says the two have remained in touch ever since that night.

"I think we just bonded for life," she said. "I don't know which way it will go. We're just happy to be alive. For the future, who knows. It's not something we've specifically talked about just yet, but we are still talking."

Kelly wasn't the only service member or veteran in the crowd who sprang into action. Accounts of bravery emerging in the wake of the shooting include a Marine veteran who stole a utility truck on concert grounds to rush shooting victims to the hospital; an Army veteran who treated the wounded, making a tourniquet for one victim with his shirt; and another Marine veteran who helped move concertgoers out of the line of fire, among others.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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