January 28, 2016 - Alexis Deese is crying. After staring off into a window filled with bare trees and the Great Smoky Mountains, she glances at the Navy ball cap on her kitchen table.
Deese will be leaving her family and regular civilian life on Feb. 1. She only has three more days before she leaves a place that she has grown to love. But the tears welling up in her eyes are different. They are not for her departure. Instead, she cries for the departed. As she recounts what happened a little more than seven months ago in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the consequences of that day sink in and overwhelm her.
January 28, 2016 - Alexis Deese outside her family's home in Sevierville, Tenn., three days before she leaves for Navy boot camp. Deese was scheduled to be in the recruiting office in Chattanooga, Tenn., during the shooting attack that took place on July 16, 2015. She missed the appointment after her mother took the car for work. Despite the attack, she joined the Navy just a few weeks later. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Timothy Walter)
“I always feel kind of guilty. I get to sit here and talk about how I made it out, but there are little kids that will never get their dad to come back home,” she says.
On July 16, 2015, Deese had an appointment with Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Jonathan Green at Navy Recruiting Station Chattanooga. She was excited to join the Navy. This meeting would be her final check-in before she went to the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) to choose her job and swear in.
As she prepared to leave though, she realized that there was a problem. The family car was missing. She found out that her mother had taken it. So the 10 a.m. appointment came and went.
Just 45 minutes later, a car did appear, but at a different location. A man in a silver convertible with the top down drove up to the Armed Forces Recruiting Center off Lee Highway in Chattanooga. Then he did something no one expected. The driver began firing shots at the building. Bullets ripped through the front windows of the recruiting stations and everyone dove for cover. The seat where Deese was supposed to sit and review her paperwork was inches from the glass.
As news came in that day, reports were scattered. Different locations and varied details were thrown about as the media tried to get a handle on the attack. It was a terrifying shock to the community and particularly to Deese when she finally heard the report that one of the targets was a recruiting station.
Miraculously, none of the recruiters from the various branches lost their life. But a few minutes across town at the Navy Operational Support Center, four Marines and one Sailor were not as fortunate.
The Chattanooga shooting quickly became a nationwide concern. People mourned in states hundreds of miles away. Some civilians organized armed patrols outside recruiting stations and others just tried to figure out exactly what had happened.
But what about the community in Chattanooga? As Deese tells it, the aftermath was striking.
“Right after that, you think people would be scared and upset. But no, everyone was positive. Everyone was together. It wasn't just an attack on those five families. It wasn't just an attack on the recruiter's office. It was an attack on our community. It was an attack on Chattanooga. It wasn't just that section. Everyone was affected,” she said.
In some ways, she is an unlikely spokesperson for the city that until the shooting was known more for scenic views and having one of the fastest Internet systems in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, most of her life was spent in Florida in places like West Palm Beach, Inverness and Cape Coral. She had only been in this city for a little over a year when the attack happened.
Yet Chattanooga changed her even before her missed appointment. When asked what she considers her hometown, she is passionate.
“It's Chattanooga,” she says.
The tragedy of the shooting only cemented her love of a city and community that at first seem strange. She recalls how she didn't understand the immediate friendliness of strangers, who would share their life story without prompting, even at a gas station. It was a unique culture that she grew to love.
“I think that is what helped everyone get through it. It was the community. I've never seen anything like that where everyone just came together,” she says.
She points to her phone with a picture of the flags and trinkets that made up the impromptu memorial outside the recruiting station in the days that followed. At first, she didn't want to even look at it because of what it meant. But she finally did visit and she was surprised at what happened to her.
“I was looking at it and I was crying. And this lady — I didn't even know her — just comes up and hugs me and she's crying. She says, 'I see your shirt and I'm so grateful.' And before I knew it I had three people hugging me. And I'm like, I haven't even done anything. I wore a shirt and people were already so grateful.”
The shirt she wore was a simple blue shirt with a Navy logo right above the heart. However, it meant that she was a future Sailor.
Her recruiter wasn't sure she would wear one. After the attack, he figured she might change her mind.
“I thought she was going to run away after that,” said Green, a native of Lumberton, North Carolina. “But I called her up and she was still motivated. She still wanted to join.”
Just a few weeks after the attack, she raised her right hand and swore in as one of the newest members of the U.S. Navy. It was a choice that was recognized on Aug. 15 by the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter during the memorial service for the fallen service members in Chattanooga. In fact, Carter called her out by name.
“She had been talking to recruiters in Chattanooga before the shooting, but this senseless violence only made her want to serve her country more. It only strengthened her resolve to stand up against fear and hatred,” Carter said of Deese.
Deese cried when the secretary of defense mentioned her. In part, she felt unworthy to be named because she could see the families who lost so much sitting just a few feet in front of her. Yet her resolve was strengthened.
“Everyone is getting so mad over this stuff but they are running away from the fire. Who is going to run into it to put it out? I want to be that person. People need to do something. And I believe you can. You just have to put your mind to it,” she says.
She adds that something more than idealism though brought her back to the Navy. It was something that in a time of tragedy brought sanity.
“If it wasn't for the recruiters in Chattanooga, I probably wouldn't have gone back. They really are some of my best friends,” she says.
A couple months after the attack, her family moved north to Sevierville, Tennessee. It took her away from the community of Chattanooga. So whenever she needed to gather something from her storage unit in the city, she made a point to stop in with cookies to see the recruiters who helped her make sense of a terrible day and helped give her a means to express her conviction.
Today, she sits at her kitchen table with just three days before she finally leaves for boot camp. She thinks about the recruiters, about the attack and about her family. Her cat sits in the chair next to her, seemingly unaware of what is about to happen. And those who know her keep asking if she is nervous.
“I'm anxious. I'm more nervous about saying goodbye to my parents than I am about actually going. I just want to go. I've watched probably every video on YouTube about boot camp. I could probably draw the place for you. I'm just ready to go,” she says.
She quickly switches to excitement as she thinks about all the opportunities that may be around the corner.
“If I can go on a submarine, I want to go on a submarine. Not a lot of people can say that they are doing this, or were able to, or got the chance or opportunities to do what I'm about to do,” she says.
At 3:38 a.m. on Feb. 1, she is sitting on a bus and she is nervous. She is surrounded by others on the same journey to boot camp. She sends out a text.
“It's finally hitting me that I'm actually leaving. Saying goodbye is so hard, but I know it'll be good eventually. I have butterflies so bad though. I'm so excited!” she writes.
Soon she is in a different world with uniforms and new rules. But no matter where her Navy career takes her, she already made up her mind about Chattanooga.
“When I'm done, I'm coming back. This is where I want to end up.”
Navy Recruiting Station Chattanooga is one of more than 30 stations belonging to Navy Recruiting District Nashville. More than 100,000 square miles are assigned to NRD Nashville including counties in Tennessee, Arkansas, northern Alabama, northern Georgia, northern Mississippi, southern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia.
By U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Timothy Walter
Provided through DVIDS
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