UPDATE 11:08 a.m. July 18, 2015: A Navy Petty Officer wounded in Thursday's shooting in Chatanooga, Tenn., died Saturday morning, bringing the total killed by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez to five.
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan received a Purple Heart for wounds suffered during his two deployments to Iraq.
The 40-year-old career Marine will now receive another Purple Heart, this one posthumously for the fatal wounds he suffered on Thursday at the Navy Operations Support Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Shortly before his family was notified of his death, one of his two brothers posted a prayer on Facebook:
“Thoughts and prayers go out to the friends & families of the four Marines killed today by a terrorist in Tennessee. Praying that Thomas Sullivan is safe.”
Purple Hearts will also go to the three Marines and a sailor who died with him: 25-year-old Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, 37-year-old Sgt. Carson Holmquist, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Skip Wells and 24-year-old Navy Petty Officer Randall Smith.
Smith had clung to life for two days with his family at his hospital bedside, undergoing multiple surgeries for his three gunshot wounds and at one point giving his wife, Angie, a thumbs up. He had described her on Facebook back at the time of her birthday as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” They had three daughters under the age of seven whom he described as “our 3 precious girls.”
"Gone but you will never be forgotten sweet angel,” a cousin named Neoma Darsey posted after he died. “Watch closely over your three girls and we will tell them all the stories we can about you.”
Wyatt had a wife, Lorri, and two young children, Becca and Heith. A photo on Lorri’s Facebook page shows him embracing the kids at his homecoming from a deployment in 2013, the girl in his right arm, the boy in his left. The kids are both clutching American flags.
Holmquist also had a wife, Jasmine, and a young son, Wyatt. A picture on Facebook was taken when he returned from a deployment last year.
“WELCOME HOME DADDY,” reads the tyke-sized sign held by the son.
His smiling wife is crouched by the boy. Her adult-sized sign reads, “WE’VE WAITED 244 DAYS FOR THIS MOMENT. WELCOME HOME SGT. HOLMQUIST.”
The happy homecoming images turn searing at the thought of these Marines returning safe to their families from overseas, only to meet their deaths in America at the hands of a gunman who seemed to imagine that he was doing Allah’s will.
The youngest of the four Marines, Wells, had not yet married. He was fresh out of boot camp and had seemed to consider the Marines a calling.
Wells had marked the 12th anniversary of 9/11 by posting a photo of the Twin Towers and an American flag. He had been just 8 years-old when the hijacked planes flew into the World Trade Center.
And now he has fallen in a continuing war that seems to have no end.
“ACTIVE SHOOTER,” he had texted to his girlfriend, Carolina Dove, in his final moments.
She had at first taken it as a joke, but then learned the attack was real.
“I love you,” she texted him. “Hon, I need you to answer me please.”
The gunman who killed Wells and his four fellow servicemen had himself been only 11 at the start of this longest conflict.
The blog that Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez posted on WordPress under myabvdulazeez offers the argument that all real Muslims must wage jihad. The FBI is said to be checking the authorship of more threatening posts on Twitter and investigating whether he came into contact with militants during a seven-month visit to Jordan. Abdulazeez’s mother has Facebook postings attesting to her support for the Palestinian cause and investigators suspect that his father has at least sympathies with Hamas.
But whatever part religion and the troubles of the Middle East may have played in making Abdulazeez a murderer, personal troubles unique to him were almost certainly the determining factor.
The real reason he did what he did is less likely found in the Koran than in the file for case 03-0371 in the Chancery Court in Hamilton County, Tennessee. This February, 2009 case is listed as “Divorce (with Minor Children.)” The plaintiff is the future gunman’s mother, Rasmia Abdulazeez. The defendant is his father, Youssuf Saed Abdulazeez.
First reported by The Chattanooga Times Free Press, the complaint alleges that the father beat the mother and children without provocation. He was also said to have sexually assaulted the wife when the children were in the house and to have spoken of taking a second wife “under Islamic law.”
The complaint charges that the situation became so dire that the mother’s brothers felt compelled to come from their homes in Washington D.C. The father allegedly resumed being abusive after the brothers departed.
“Defendant did sexually abuse Plaintiff a second time,” the complaint charges.
The complaint goes on, “She is in fear for her safety at the hands of the Defendant. She avers that unless a Restraining Order is entered removing him from the marital home and preventing him from coming around her, she will be irrevocably injured.”
The wife dropped the case three weeks after she filed it, the father having agreed to joint counseling and to spending an hour each night talking through their problems. He further agreed to give her $200 a month and to pay a lump sum of $100,000 should they end up getting divorced after all.
Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez subsequently took up mixed martial arts, perhaps partly as a way to vent some of the rage and anxiety a son of an allegedly abusive father is bound to feel.
The video of him in the ring immediately brings to mind footage of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, another son of a reportedly fractured family. Tsarnaev tried to make it as a boxer before turning to jihad and bombing the Boston Marathon.
As with the Boston Marathon bomber, Abdulazeez ended up with reason to feel more like a loser than a champion. Both men sought to fill a vacuum in their own lives by taking the lives of others, with Abdulazeez choosing not a pressure cooker bomb but two long guns and a pistol.
Sullivan left behind his brothers, John and Joe, as well as his parents, Betty and Jerry, but no children of his own. He had, in a sense, married the Marine Corps, to which he had dedicated his life. He had lived its motto, Semper Fi, for semper fidelis, or always faithful.
“No matter how life hits you, no matter how hard, you always have to honor the mission,” a comrade remembers him telling them.
Not that he was unable to imagine a life after the Marines. He mentioned one plan for the future when he posted the emblem of the band The Dropkick Murphys online.
“This is what i am going to (get) tattooed one year out from retiring from the Marines,” he wrote.
In the meantime, he was a Marine among Marines, its heart and soul. One Facebook photo shows a proud Sullivan being promoted to gunnery sergeant in October of 2011.
Another picture is of him and a comrade standing in dress uniform at the foot of a wooden walkway leading to a small Connecticut church called Chapel in the Pines.
“I guard heaven,” Sullivan wrote.
His brother, Joe, is co-owner of a bar, Nathan and Bill’s, in their hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. The bar posted an old Irish blessing that applies to all four of the Marines and the sailor who served with them, five fine Americans who will now forever stand guard at whatever gate awaits the best of us.
“May the road rise to meet you.May the wind be always at your back.May the sun shine warm upon your face.And rains fall soft upon your fields.And until we meet again,May God hold you inthe hollow of His hand.”
-with Susan Zalkind