Sprayberry High School's heart is broken at the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Skip Wells, struck down by a terrorist's bullet in Chattanooga, Tenn., last week, and yet it beats on.
You could hear it Tuesday night in the snap of American flags, whipping in the wind at half-staff as a vigil got underway in the high school stadium. You could hear it in the mournful cadence of the military band. You could hear it in the rumble of the motorcycles whose riders held Old Glory in honor of the fallen Marine.
Thunder boomed overhead as the memorial started, and it sounded like the very heartbeat of God.
"What a hero we are here to honor tonight, " said First Baptist Church Woodstock Executive Pastor Jim Law, who began the evening with prayer.
Wells, 21, was one of four Marines killed Thursday when a gunman attacked two military centers in Chattanooga. A sailor injured in the attack died early Saturday morning. The gunman, identified as 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, was also killed.
U.S Rep. Tom Price was among the fleet of dignitaries who paid tribute Tuesday night.
"This gathering is truly a testimony to the life of a patriot: Skip Wells, " he said. "Nothing we say will replace the loss or the heartbreak or the pain the family and friends are experiencing at this time. We can say how much heroes enlighten us and inspire us and strengthen the faith of our nation and of our lives. Skip Wells is a hero."
Wells' band director, Andy Esserwein, recalled an ebullient young man who was always smiling. Sprayberry Navy Junior ROTC Gunnery Sgt. Joe Ingram remembered Wells' innate sense of leadership. Lt. Commander Dennis Wonders summed up the young man's many attributes.
"Who was Skip Wells? He was one of us," Wonders said. "He was a neighbor. He was a friend to many. I don't think Skip believed in keeping enemies. He was a talented musician. He was a devout Christian. He was a respected student. He was simply a great guy. He was a Marine."
Wells graduated in 2012 but stayed in touch.
"He came back just last semester in uniform to talk to our cadets, " Wonders said. "Then we got the news. The budding life of the young man that everyone loved was senselessly and abruptly ended."
In a poignant farewell, Wonders gave the fallen Marine his final orders: "I say goodbye to you, Skip Wells. You are relieved of your duties. We thank you for your service and your ultimate sacrifice."
And to Wells' mother, Cathy Wells, her face painted with grief and her son's image emblazoned on the shirt she wore: "You are not alone. We have your back. We are your family."
Afterward, supporters lingered on the field and at the memorial to Wells set up in front of the school. Dani Stancliff, a 2013 Sprayberry graduate, was in the JROTC program with him.
"He was a great, friendly guy," she said.
It took time for the horrible news out of Tennessee to sink in.
"I didn't believe it at first," Stancliff said. "I saw it on the news and thought, OK, this is real."
She's in the process of enlisting in the Navy, and her decision has been bolstered by her friend's untimely death: "I will fight for him."