Earlier this year, during a Marine training exercise in California, 21-year-old Skip Wells hit his hand with a sledgehammer while attempting to drive a stake into the ground. Wells wasn’t sure if the swelling indicated he’d broken his hand. First Sgt. John Coyne, Wells’s superior in the 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, ordered him to seek medical treatment for it. But Wells insisted it could wait. He wanted to stay alongside his fellow soldiers.
“First Sergeant, I will not leave my gun,” Coyne said at the lance corporal’s funeral on Sunday. “. . . He cared more about his fellow marines and his mission than his own well being. That’s what he was doing on July 16, disregarding his own safety, so others would survive.”
On July 16, 24-year-old gunman Muhammad Youssuf Abdulazeez opened fire on two military facilities in Chattanooga, killing five servicemen before losing his life in a gun battle. Wells, a Marietta native who’d been temporarily assigned to a recruiting center in Chattanooga, was one of the victims. Though no motive has been determined, the Federal Bureau of Investigation continues to look at the shooting as an “act of domestic terrorism.”
Wells received a war hero’s welcome home during the past week. Hundreds of mourners watched a police motorcade transport his body from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to Cobb County on July 23. Four different visitations were held in Kennesaw over the weekend. From the Capitol to Cherokee County, flags flew at half-staff in the week leading up to his funeral.
“We cannot change the past but as a community, we can offer hope, peace, and comfort to those who are mourning.” Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee said in a statement on Friday.
On Sunday afternoon, mourners hoisted large American flags outside gas stations while others, clad in American colors, set up folding chairs along Highway 92, all to greet a motorcade taking the marine to Woodstock First Baptist Church. Inside the megachurch, which draws on average 6,000 members to service each week, Cathy Wells, Skip’s mom who had served in the military, sat in the front row near his grandparents, a few feet away from his American flag-draped coffin. Hundreds of friends; servicemen; and officials, including Congressman Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, were in attendance for the 90-minute funeral.
“Skip’s life, as short as it was, mattered,” Woodstock First Baptist Church Senior Pastor Johnny Hunt said at his funeral. “His life made a difference.”
The service, accompanied by both a bagpipe playing “Amazing Grace” and a large orchestra performing the Marines’ Hymn, focused on the early life of Wells. Jareko Aloisio, a close friend since the sixth grade, said Wells’s upbringing made his eventual pursuit of a military career seem all but inevitable. The only child of a single mother, Wells spent much of his childhood playing with toy guns, watching Band of Brothers, and reenacting Civil War’s Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.
After graduating from Sprayberry High School, the clarinet player, U.S. Naval JROTC member, and regular churchgoer briefly attended Georgia Southern University. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in November 2014. In his formal Marine attire, Coyne described Wells as a “hard charger” who had distinguished himself as an artilleryman through his positive demeanor and “awe-inspiring” work ethic.
“He enhanced this community, enhanced this state, and enhanced this country,” said Woodstock First Baptist Church executive pastor Jim Law.
At the funeral service’s end, several marines filed out of the church in silence, saluted Wells’s coffin, and placed the casket into a hearse. Dozens of policemen riding on motorcycles and in patrol cars escorted the coffin to Canton, where Wells’s body was laid to rest inside the Georgia National Cemetery. Marine flags, topping numerous cars in the police escort, were covered several vehicles. Behind the pastor’s podium, another flag hung over one of the orchestra’s many seats, the one Wells occupied on many Sundays, where he played clarinet.