The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said he is committed to ensuring that the service members killed in the July 16 shootings in Chattanooga, Tennessee, receive posthumous Purple Hearts.
“We will make sure it happens,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Washington Times.
Four Marines — Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist and Lance Cpl. Squire Wells — died when 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on two military facilities. U.S. Navy Petty Officer Randall Smith, who was wounded in the rampage, died early Saturday.
Some of the Marines may have saved their fellow service members by ushering them to safety before returning to try to neutralize Abdulazeez.
“While I cannot share specific details about what happened that morning, our Marines reacted the way you would expect — rapidly going from room to room. They got their fellow Marines to safety,” Maj. Gen. Paul Brier, commander of the 4th Marine Division, said during a news conference Wednesday. “Once they got them to safety, some willingly ran back into the fight.”
Twenty Marines and two Navy corpsmen were in the naval reserve center inspecting their equipment after returning from a training program, Gen. Brier told reporters, indicating that the massacre could have been much worse if not for the Marines’ acts of courage.
Lt. Cmdr. Timothy White, the support center’s commanding officer, used his personal firearm to engage Abdulazeez during the attack, the Navy Times reported. Four sources confirmed that the officer’s actions were included in a report distributed to senior Navy leaders after the attack.
“When history records what happened in Chattanooga last week, it won’t be remembered for the heinous actions of one individual,” Gen. Brier said. “The legacy of that day is one of valor.”
Changes in the fiscal 2015 defense policy bill allow the Purple Heart to be awarded to active-duty troops killed or wounded anytime after Sept. 11, 2001, by people who had communicated with or were inspired by a foreign terrorist organization.
The bill opened up victims of the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, and a military recruitment office in Little Rock, Arkansas, to receive the award. Civilians at Fort Hood who were injured or killed were awarded the Defense of Freedom Medal, the civilian equivalent to the Purple Heart.
In both attacks, the shooter had been inspired by an international terrorist organization: Maj. Nidal Hasan allegedly shouted “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” during the attack in Fort Hood, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, the shooter in Arkansas, claimed ties to al Qaeda after the shooting.
It is unclear whether Abdulazeez had any ties to a terrorist organization. Officials on Wednesday said they were treating the shooting as an act of domestic terrorism and were investigating the online and travel history of Abdulazeez, who was born in Kuwait and recently visited his uncle in Jordan.
Mr. McCain said he is unsure whether the fiscal 2015 defense policy bill makes the slain Marines and sailor eligible, or if new legislation will be necessary to ensure that those killed in Chattanooga receive the award.
More than 30 service members and civilians who were injured and the families of the 13 who were killed at Fort Hood became eligible for the Purple Heart as a result of the bill. Many received the award in a ceremony in April in Texas. One recruiter who was injured and the family of a recruiter who was killed in Arkansas received the medals on July 1.
Lawmakers from the Texas delegation played a large role in pushing for victims of the Fort Hood attack to receive Purple Hearts, introducing legislation and lobbying fellow members of Congress on the floor.
Sen. Lamar Alexander said he has not considered whether he would begin a push with his fellow Tennessee Republican, Sen. Bob Corker, to get Purple Hearts for the victims in Chattanooga.
“I haven’t gotten to that yet, and I’ll have to discuss it with Sen. Corker,” he said. “We’re busy trying to think of what we can do to help the families to make sure they receive the benefits they’re entitled to. Then we can turn our attention to whether there are other honors that they deserve.”
Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Congress should consider the honor because those killed at Fort Hood were authorized to receive the medal.
He also called on lawmakers to develop a standard for domestic attacks so they can give the service secretaries a set of criteria by which they can award the medals rather than legislating for individual attacks.
“I think we should probably step back and make a determination not incident-by-incident but general authority to the secretary of the service to make awards, give them some criteria,” he said.
“The immediate reaction is these young Marines and the sailor sacrificed their lives for the country — that’s pretty clear,” he said.