The acting Navy secretary has approved the posthumous award of the coveted Wings of Gold to three aviation trainees who were killed in a mass shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, on Dec. 6.
In a statement Tuesday, Acting SecNav Thomas Modly proclaimed Ensign Joshua K. Watson as a naval aviator, and Airman Mohammed S. Haitham and Airman Apprentice Cameron S. Walters as naval air crewmen in honor of their heroism and sacrifice.
All were in the same classroom building when a Saudi trainee opened fire. Modly has said in previous statements that the young men ran toward danger, fighting to keep the gunman from claiming more casualties. Watson's family has said he got out of the building despite his wounds and helped guide emergency responders to the shooter.
"It is my honor today to present the Wings of Gold to the families of these three American heroes who were among the first to respond to horrific attacks upon our own naval family and, tragically, were also our Sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting their brothers and sisters in arms," Modly said in a statement. "Although this authorization pales in comparison to their immense bravery in the line of fire, this winging represents the symbolic achievement of the coveted goal that all three came to Pensacola to accomplish: to join the long line of naval aviators, flight officers, and air crewmen who have served the cause of freedom so valiantly for over a century.
"Airman Haitham, Airman Walters, and Ensign Watson represent the highest virtues of naval aviation, and undoubtedly belong in that great fraternity of selfless service to our Navy, our Department, and our Nation."
Chief of Naval Air Training Rear Adm. Daniel Dwyer also praised the sailors' "selfless acts of heroism."
"There is no doubt in my mind they each would have led the charge in their respective Naval aviation careers," he said. "We are deeply saddened by this tragedy, and our hearts are truly with the families and friends of our Shipmates."
Naval aviators earn their Wings of Gold after completing aviation training and before being sent to their first unit. They signal hard-earned membership in a close-knit community.
The head of all Naval Air Forces, Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller III, offered his condolences to the families of the fallen.
"Ensign Watson, Airman Haitham and Airman Apprentice Walters are heroes," Miller said in a statement. "Their actions and sacrifice embodied the competence, courage and character of those who wear Naval Aviation Wings of Gold. These wings were presented in honor of their brave actions and in everlasting memory of their sacrifice."
Eight other personnel were wounded in the shooting rampage, which ended when the gunman was killed by a law enforcement officer. Five have been discharged from the hospital, and three are still being treated in stable condition, officials said this week.
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.