Laurel County resident Bryan Cheak was gripped by two thoughts when he learned that a homegrown extremist fired at unarmed military recruiters in storefront offices and killed five military service members at a reserve center in Chattanooga.
"I immediately recognized that life had not only been lost, but tragedy could have possibly been avoided," said Cheak, who is now volunteering to stand guard outside the Armed Forces Career Center in London. He is calling it Operation Defend the Defenders.
Others have joined Cheak, allowing the security effort to be shared in shifts and expanded to include Somerset. Their ultimate goal, besides deterring further violence, is to influence lawmakers or the military to allow recruiters to carry weapons.
The self-appointed Kentucky guards are part of a growing movement of armed citizens posting themselves outside military recruiting centers since Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez killed four Marines and a sailor in Chattanooga last week in what the FBI said Wednesday was the act of a lone "homegrown violent extremist." Tennessee, Georgia and Texas also are among the states where residents are volunteering to keep watch.
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Cheak, the father of an Iraq war veteran, said he holds a "deep sense of debt and gratitude that I feel that we owe to our men and women in the military."
He first gained the approval of the recruiting offices and local law enforcement, saying he didn't want to simply pull up a chair and sit with a gun outside the building that houses recruiting offices for the Army and Marines.
"There was no red tape at all," said Cheak, who began his guard stint about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday and stood alone until about 4 p.m., when friend Shannon Melton joined him after seeing Cheak's Facebook post.
"He came without hesitation and was here by my side," Cheak said. By the end of the workday, nine people stood watch, and more than 20 showed up with food and resources.
Cheak said he and his group of volunteers were receiving only supportive feedback from the community,
"I've got people coming up and hugging us, crying with us, telling us how much they appreciate what we're doing," said Cheak, who mentioned being approached by a young girl who told him, "I just want to thank you for doing what you're doing."
The Laurel County Sheriff's Office and the London Police Department said they had not received any complaints, and the response had been overwhelmingly positive.
In other areas, groups are being met with more skepticism. Employees at a medical supply center next to a military recruiting center in Franklin County, Ohio, said they weren't thrilled by the local guards' presence, and customers said hiring professional security would be better, according to an Associated Press report.
Among the military branches, acceptance isn't universal.
Lee Elder, spokesman for the Army recruiting district that covers Kentucky and Tennessee, said citizens standing guard have not caused problems.
"The people have all been cordial," Elder said.
But Capt. Jim Stenger, Marine Corps public affairs officer for the recruiting district that covers several Midwestern states, said he hoped the volunteers would go home.
"While we greatly appreciate the support of the American public during this tragedy, we ask that citizens do not stand guard at our recruiting offices," Stenger said in an emailed statement to the AP. "Our continued public trust lies among our trained first responders for the safety of the communities where we live and work."
No one from the Marine recruiting district covering Kentucky could be reached for comment
In Paducah and Owensboro, local law enforcement welcomed volunteers but imposed a few conditions.
"We're mostly here as a deterrent," Bill Swinford told the Paducah Sun this week. Swinford was standing guard outside the recruiting center in Paducah his wife, Patricia. "We're not going to have another Chattanooga here in Paducah, not if we can help it," he said.
Swinford said local police allowed the guards on the conditions that they keep the chambers of their firearms empty, that they have no more than three people at a time standing guard, and that everyone with a firearm was licensed to carry it, according to the Sun.
Members of American Legion Riders Post 9 stood outside the recruiting center in Owensboro starting Monday. Police told them they could do so on the condition they not conceal their weapons.
"The whole purpose of our being here is to discourage anyone who might have a like mind" to the shooter's in Chattanooga "to drive on by," Nick Hetman told the Messenger-Inquirer.
Some civilian sentries are acting alone in short displays of appreciation.
Standing watch at the Marine Corps recruiting center in Danville is Hustonville police and fire Chief Fred McCoy, a former Marine. McCoy said he is using vacation time to defend the center for the rest of the week.
"It'd be nice to have a two-man team each day," McCoy told the Advocate Messenger. "A show of support is what it's all about, just to show them that we're behind them."
Cheak has a pool of people to use. On Wednesday, the London group divided into shifts, with two to three people standing watch for several hours before trading with another group. Cheak said he planned to organize a similar team outside the Somerset recruiting center, where there are offices for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. He said he had received backing from the Pulaski County Sheriff's Department and hoped to have someone on site by Friday. Pulaski County Sheriff Greg Speck said the volunteers would be free to stand guard as long as they obeyed the law.
Cheak said the goal of defending the recruiting centers is to influence federal policy, which prohibits firearms inside federal buildings, including military recruiting centers.
"I am suggesting that every one of these recruiting offices be allowed to protect themselves," said Cheak, who said he would cease his watch only when the policy is changed or the recruitment center tells him to stand down.