Inside the Chattanooga Recruiting Center Attack: 'I Didn't Know I'd Been Shot,' Says Wounded Marine
"We trained for this. We just did what Marines are trained to do," Sergeant Demonte Cheeley tells PEOPLE
A Marine recruiter who was shot during last week’s attacks in Chattanooga did not realize he’d been hit by gunfire until his commander saw his wound and insisted he seek medical treatment, the Marine tells PEOPLE.
“I didn’t feel it,” says Sergeant Demonte Cheeley, 25. “Even when they put me in the ambulance to go to the emergency room, I was going to go home and put a bandage on it.”
Cheeley, an Afghanistan war veteran and former Marine Corps truck driver who has been a recruiter for about six weeks, was at work July 16 when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez began the rampage that eventually would kill four Marines and one sailor. No one was killed inside the recruiting center where Cheeley was, but Abdulazeez moved on to the Navy Operational Support Center down the road, where he gunned down the five military service members before he was killed.
“It was a normal, routine day,” Cheeley says. “Another Marine and I were sitting on a couch by the front window” inside the Marine Corps section of the Armed Forces Career Center.
At 10:45 a.m., Cheeley heard a loud pop. The nearby window sprayed glass. He assumed that someone was playing with pyrotechnics left over from the Fourth of July.
“I thought, someone set off a firecracker, broke our window, and now they’re in trouble,” he says. But a split second later, the Marine next to him spotted a rifle pointed directly at them. All hell broke loose inside the center.
“There was a short pause,” Cheeley says. “Then rapid fire. Multiple rounds came in. We knew it was gunfire.”
Four Marines in the front portion of the office scrambled for their lives, dodging bullets and glass, heading for the back door. They stopped by their commander’s office to get him to safety.
“The boss didn’t know what was going on,” Cheeley says. “The look on his face was disappointment, like, ‘Who just fired a firecracker?’ ”
The four Marines shouted for their commander, Gunnery Sergeant Camden Meyer, to exit the kill zone.
Everyone left the building alive. “We went to different locations in back,” Cheeley says. “I went behind a dumpster.”
There, he noticed blood on his leg. “I thought I was cut by glass,” Cheeley says. “It was shattering all over our office. I thought I just had a cut.”
A Near Miss
Cheeley immediately called his wife to tell her he’d been cut but was okay. He then rejoined the other Marines, who regrouped in a single spot.
Meyer, the station commander, noticed the blood on Cheeley’s leg and asked him to have it checked.
“I said I was fine. I was just going to go home and put a bandage on it,” Cheeley says.
Meyer instead brought Cheeley to see a police officer, and then an EMT, to look at what he believed to be a gunshot wound.
“The next thing I knew, I was calling my wife from the back of an ambulance to tell her I’d been shot,” Cheeley says.
He adds: “She was hysterical.”
At the hospital, doctors confirmed that Cheeley had sustained a gunshot wound. After considerable searching and X-rays, doctors determined that the bullet had pierced the back of Cheeley’s left leg, exited the front, and scraped his right knee.
“They fixed me up. A few hours later, I went home with a limp.”
A week later, Cheeley is back at work with his fellow Marines. “I’m fine,” he says. “We’re all fine. We really are.”
Cheeley says he is grateful for the “outstanding support from the community of Chattanooga” and is eager to press on with recruiting.
“I limped for a few days, but physically I’m fine. Mentally? It’s a situation that happened. Now it’s over.
“We trained for this. We just did what Marines are trained to do.”
For more on the fallen heroes and the investigation into the shooter’s motive, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE on newsstands now.
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