The temporary monument took shape quickly, in spite of sun, in spite of sorrow. Empty boots, rumpled camouflage pants and a black U.S. Marine Corps T-shirt: they comprised a silent reminder that that he’d walked among them.
Then someone placed tiny American flags alongside the road outside Sprayberry High School. They fluttered in the hot wind.
And then the people who’d known him stood in a cluster Friday afternoon and remembered Skip Wells — classmate, college student, Marine.
Wells and three other Marines were killed Thursday, gunned down in an act federal officials are investigating as an act of terrorism. Wells, 21, was on the first day of a temporary assignment in Chattanooga; he was just about to become a full-time, active-duty Marine.
He was the sort of guy the Marines wanted, said Sharon Greenwell. She pointed to a photo attached to a banner belonging to Sprayberry’s Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. Wells, SHS Class of 2012, had been one of its stars.
“Do you see that smile on that photo?” asked Greenwell, president of the ROTC booster club. “That’s what I remember about him.”
His real name was Squire, but folks called him Skip. He was the only son of , Cathy Wells, herself a Navy veteran and a single mom. He was the quick laugh in the classroom, the clarinetist who played for the marching band and in church. He was the aspiring Marine who excelled in field drills.
He was, everyone agreed, a great guy.
“He was an effervescent kid,” said Andy Kingery, a Marietta resident. Kingery watched the boy turn into a man, the man, into a Marine.
“He was keenly aware of what he was getting into,” said Kingery, who spoke on behalf of Wells’ family. “He was absolutely aware of what he was doing when he joined the Marines.”
He enrolled at Georgia Southern University, but felt the call to serve in the military instead. On Friday, the Statesboro university – still wounded from the roadway deaths of five nursing students earlier this year – shared its sorrow over the death of a former student.
“The Eagle Nation offers our deepest condolences to his family and the families of those killed and wounded during this incident,” the statement read.
No one in Statesboro, perhaps, felt that sorrow more keenly than Caroline Dove, Wells’ girlfriend. In a series of texts Thursday, they discussed her impending trip to Chattanooga.
“Can’t wait anymore,” Wells texted.
“Yes you can honey,” she replied.
His next words: “ACTIVE SHOOTER.”
She never heard from him again.
‘Dream to serve’
He wanted to be an artillery specialist, to fire the big guns, said Dennis Wonders, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who oversees Sprayberry’s Navy ROTC program. Wells had been one of his students.
“He was a fantastic individual, dedicated to his cause,” Wonders said. “It was his dream to serve his country.”
Wells’ mother concurred. “My son died doing what he loved for the love of his country and his family,” Cathy Wells told CNN.
Lane Edwards remembered Wells as the sort of guy an underclassman wants to be. “He was a role model to me,” said Lane Edwards, 18. He was a freshman when Wells was a senior. They were on the military drill team, where the younger student tried to emulate the older one.
Wells had always been interested in the military, said Nolan Opp. He met Wells when they were in the sixth grade and remained friends throughout their years at Sprayberry High School.
“From the moment I met him, he had a demeanor about him,” said Opp, now a private first class in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Stewart. “He wanted to be the best he could be at anything he did.”
Imani McKenney recalled a happy young man. “He was,” she said, “the sort of person you want to have classes with.” McKinney, another member of the class of 2012, coined a word to describe her old classmate: “mannerable.”
He did have great manners, said Gary Gaston, orchestra director at First Baptist Church of Woodstock, where Wells frequently played clarinet.
“Skip was so polite and courteous that it almost made you suspicious,” Gaston recalled in an email. “Once you got to know him, you discovered he really was that nice.”
A few Sundays ago, said Gaston, the young man came to church. He wore the full regalia of a U.S. Marine, the dress blues. The congregation stood and applauded. The young Marine beamed.
On Friday, an older Marine paid his respects to the younger one. Jerry Jameson of Jasper parked a ways off, then marched to the high school. He carried a 3-by-5 American flag, which cracked and rolled in the wind.
He approached the memorial to Wells. He carefully straightened the Marine Corps shirt, rumpled on a bench. Then he saluted, slowly, the gesture an honor guard uses to honor a warrior.
Wells and his fellow slain Marines are casualties in a war that has come to our shores, Jameson said.
“As Marines, we are all a band of brothers and sisters,” he said. “What happened to them shouldn’t have happened.”
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