Marine Sgt. DeMonte Cheeley was sitting on a couch in a small store-front military recruiting center last week when shots started ripping through the office. Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez had opened fire on the center, and Cheeley and his fellow Marines were forced out a back door as dozens of rounds whizzed around them.
Cheeley, an Afghanistan veteran and truck driver in the Marine Corps, said he realized he was wounded in the left leg quickly, but thought he was hit with glass spraying through the office in Chattanooga, Tenn. As he and four other unarmed Marines spilled out of the recruiting station, he cut to the right and took cover near a dumpster while the others ran down a steep hill.
“As soon as I got up we started running toward the back,” Cheeley said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s when rounds came constantly, just nonstop. Every round that was fired came through.” He added that despite reports in the media the glass in the recruiting office was not bullet-proof.
Cheeley, 25, was one of the first service members wounded in the July 16 attack by Abdulazeez, 24. The shooter opened fire about 10:45 a.m. before speeding away from the Armed Forces Career Center in a rented silver Mustang.
Abdulazeez, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and a pistol, then made his way toward a naval reserve center seven miles away. He rammed a gate with his car and opened fire repeatedly, killing four Marines and mortally wounding a sailor, authorities said. They are Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40; Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, 35; Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist; Lance Cpl. Squire D. “Skip” Wells, 21; and Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26.
In his first interview since the shooting, Cheeley said he was pulled into a back door of a neighboring office near the dumpster. Police arrived and told him he had been shot and would need an ambulance, but Cheeley didn’t believe it.
Paramedics eventually laid him on his side, took his sock and shoe off and covered his wound. He was taken to a hospital nearby, and was surprised to see several surgeons waiting for him. The leg wound, on the back of his leg above the knee, was somewhat close to an artery, and doctors weren’t initially sure if the bullet had exited.
Cheeley said he eventually pointed to a scrape on his right knee, and doctors surmised what occurred: The round had entered the back of his left leg, exited through the inside of his left thigh and then skinned his right knee. They dressed his wounds, but didn’t need to stitch him up or perform surgery.
It was at the hospital that Cheeley said he learned about the deaths at the naval reserve center nearby. He was still in disbelief about getting shot until he got home, he said. Reality set in when he took off his clothing, he said. Before the shooting started, he was wearing athletic shorts and about to go for a run. There was a bullet hole in the back of them.
Recruiting Substation Chattanooga had four other Marines in it at the time of the attack, Cheeley said: A gunnery sergeant, a staff sergeant, another sergeant and a lance corporal. He went back to the crime scene Sunday night to pick up some personal items, and found the office in disarray.
“We all talked about what we all went through and are trying to keep high spirits, but as far as going into details about it, we’ve been running ourselves ragged playing the what-if game for this,” Cheeley said. “We’re trying to just keep in high spirits.”
The Marines are now working out of another facility in the Chattanooga area, but prefer not to disclose its location for now.
“It’s not going to slow the Marine Corps down,” he said. “We’re going to continue to push. It’s not going to stop our efforts.”
On Wednesday, an FBI official and a senior Marine officer, Maj. Gen. Paul Brier, provided the first definitive account of what occurred in the reserve center. The shooter was quickly encountered there by an armed service member, but was able to get inside a building and kill one person, said Edward Reinhold, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Knoxville.
Abdulazeez then went back outside and opened fire again, mortally wounding four more service members. Four died that day, while Smith was pronounced dead early Saturday. Brier credited some of the Marines on Wednesday with braving gunfire in an attempt to save others.
Adam Goldman contributed to this report.