Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper met with some of the first responders at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Fla., who reacted to the shooting incident that left three sailors dead and eight other victims injured at the training installation Dec. 6.
At the air station’s headquarters Jan. 22, Esper shook hands with and presented secretary of defense coins to Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class David Link Jr., Navy Patrol Officer Daniel Dugger, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Donald Scott, and Capt. Robert Johnson, a civilian with the Navy Department police force.
“Thank you all for your courage, your bravery, your quick response,” Esper said. “You guys just did a great job. You make us all proud, and you make the community feel secure. And I want to thank you.”
Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, a member of the Saudi air force who was attending aviation training at Pensacola, opened fire in a classroom. A subsequent Justice Department investigation declared the attack an act of terrorism that had been motivated by jihadist ideology.
Link was one of the responders who rushed to the scene of the attack. When he heard the call on the radio, he said, he’d been conducting a traffic stop.
“I had just gotten on shift, and I was in the middle of pulling two vehicles over for speeding when the call came out over the radio,” Link said. “It said reports of active shooter, Building 633, and that there were active shots. Once I heard that, I immediately ceased pulling over the vehicles, did a U-turn and headed straight towards the building.”
There, he said, he blocked off the road to make sure that only police personnel could get into the area. “I grabbed my rifle and ran straight towards the front door, where I met up with my team, who was already there.”
Link said this was the first time in his nearly five-year Navy career he’d experienced an actual shooting event. But he said it was familiar to him just the same.
“It was very much like our training. We train how we fight,” he said. “I had my team, and my team was there already. So knowing they were there kind of put me at ease a bit.”
About 60,000 students attend classes each year at Pensacola, including enlisted personnel, officers and foreign military students. While 12 Saudi Arabian students were made to leave the installation following the shooting, about 140 Saudi students remain.
Base spokesperson Jason Bortz said he believes sentiment in the local community remains supportive of the schools and mission on the installation, the presence of international students, and even the Saudi Arabian students who remain. After the shooting, he said, he learned some of the Saudi students were concerned that they might be painted unfairly as a result of the actions of just one.
Some of those students were at a restaurant in the community, Bortz said, and the owner brought them an apple pie. “He said, ‘I know how hard this is, how this must be difficult for you. I just want you to know we don’t judge you based on the actions of this one individual,'” Bortz said. “I think our community in general has kind of gripped that. We’re not going to base our opinions off of one individual, what he did.”
Most of the students at Pensacola, he said, are young —, about 18 to 22, he noted. “They are just here to learn to be a pilot like anybody else,” he said.
“It could have been anyone,” Link said. “It could have been anyone.”
After meeting with first responders, Esper told journalists that this had been his first visit to Pensacola as the defense secretary. He said the international training mission is an important tool in helping the United States build allies around the world.
“The United States is safer when we have more allies and partners — our country is more secure,'” he said.
New directives have been issued to help prevent future such attacks, the secretary said, adding that they address subjects such as enhanced screening of foreign students, additional credentialing and weapons policies.
“Today I had a good discussion with the command about actions they’ve taken,” Esper said. “And we discussed some other possible things we may do in the future.”
While at Pensacola, the secretary received briefings from the FBI and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on the terrorist incident.