There is no combat force in the world more powerful than the combined U.S. Navy-Marine Corps team. That team was shocked and saddened when a homegrown Islamic terrorist attacked a recruiting station and a Navy Reserve center on 16 July. The assailant took the lives of four Marines and one sailor serving in the relative safety of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Citizens around the country rallied to support our troops. In a juxtaposition of roles, civilians took up arms at countless recruiting stations, our softest targets, in a unique show of force to deter another attack. Communities also gathered to honor the memory of the sailor and Marines as often happens after such a horrific loss.
Six days later, civilians and military members from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties gathered at Veterans Memorial Park in downtown Pensacola, Florida. Home to the “Wall South,” a smaller version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the park overlooking Pensacola Bay hosts several monuments and ceremonies. The Chattanooga ceremony, organized by the local chapter of the Marine Corps League, was a reminder that the sacrifices of our military, both abroad and at home, are honored.
Unfortunately, we have experienced far too many terrorist attacks on our soil, and Chattanooga was not the first on a recruiting station. On 1 June 2009, one soldier was killed and another wounded in Little Rock, Arkansas. If that first attack did not already do so, the latest should serve as a warning. Many of our military facilities are vulnerable, unguarded, and unpatrolled by military police. Recruiting stations are necessarily located in busy sections of the communities they serve, and many reserve facilities do not enjoy the relative safety of larger bases. Especially in the case of recruiting centers, leaders must balance force protection and public-access requirements.
For years I have left unwritten an article that has been but a title in a notebook, “The Unarmed Armed Forces.” I wish I had written it, but the fact is, nobody would have listened. The attack in Little Rock, two attacks at Fort Hood, Texas, and other incidents should have forced change. Stateside force protection, particularly of softer targets, continues to be mostly overlooked in spite of large-scale losses of life. Chattanooga was different because of the public’s response. Civilians took legal action to protect our service members, and the public outcry led some governors to permit National Guard members to arm themselves.
Leaders must find a balance between sufficient security and arming every troop. Recruiters need and deserve the ability to protect themselves, but their access to public schools and private homes, the places where they recruit the next generation of service members, would likely be hindered if they all wore side arms. Attacks at Fort Hood and the Washington Navy Yard showed that only having armed sentries at entry points and on patrol are insufficient to protect against determined radicals and disturbed individuals. Force protection cannot be just access control at active bases. Leaders must address troop and citizen concerns to improve security.
Chattanooga was a battle in a long war against Islamic terrorism, another reminder that the fight is truly global. We will never forget the names of the honorable men who lost their lives, surprised by a coward hell-bent on bringing jihad to our shores: Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan, Lance Corporal Squire K. Wells, Sergeant Carson A. Holmquist, Staff Sergeant David A. Wyatt, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith.
The scale of the attack was small compared to many other terrorist events in our country, but the loss of these five lives, and the impact on their families, is huge.
The citizens gathered in Pensacola were moved by the ceremony. A choir from Pensacola Naval Air Station added to the emotions with two verses of the Navy Hymn. It reminded us that our sailors and Marines, and our soldiers, airmen, and guardians, risk their lives every time they don a U.S. military uniform.
Eternal Father strong to save.
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea.
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe’er they go.
Senior Chief Murphy retired from the Navy after 21 years of service. His June 2012 Proceedings column, “Bring Back Humility,” was included in the recently published Naval Leadership, a volume in the U.S. Naval Institute Wheel Book series.