Friday, September 11, 2015

TOP STORY >> Colonel: Guards will get medals

Leader executive editor

Col. Charles E. Brown, commander of the 19th Airlift Wing, will award medals next week to five airmen who helped stop an attack at Little Rock Air Force Base on June 15.

Two of the airmen killed an armed Jacksonville man who crashed his SUV in front of the gate and stepped out with a rifle, aiming it at the airmen.

On Thursday, Brown described the incident in great detail for the first time after an Air Force review board exonerated the airmen in the shootout.

It lasted just eight seconds and was recorded on surveillance cameras, but it seemed like hours to many of the participants.

“It will resonate with me for quite a while,” Brown said in an interview in his office.

“What I saw brings so much pride to my heart. It’s almost emotional. They absolutely followed my orders to a T, ensuring he didn’t gain access that day. It was an eight-second engagement. By the time the radio calls went out, roughly two to three minutes for the call to get to me, I gave the verbal orders for a lockdown and assembled a crisis action team and went through the motions of securing the base, ensuring that all six sectors on base were clear and there wasn’t an additional threat.”

Larry Dean McElroy Jr., 43, of Old Tom Box Road behind the air base, was killed near his Ford Expedition, which contained several gas cans in the back. He had complained for months that the Air Force was spying on him.

“Ironically,” the colonel said, “he crashed in front a sign that said, ‘No weapons on this installation by order of the installation commander.’”

It was 9:15 Monday morning, less than three weeks after Brown took command of the 19th Airlift Wing.

“I was informed at 9:18 and we took the base into a lockdown. I was actually sitting in this office. My executive officer came in and said, ‘Col. Brown, shots were fired at the front gate, and we think we have an individual down.’ I didn’t know if it was a defender who was down, if it was a victim or a suspect. I didn’t know. I gave the order to lock down the base and assembled the crisis action team.”

“The true heroics that came out that day had nothing to do with what I did,” Brown continued. “I went through things we exercise routinely.”

Brown reviewed the surveillance video that night and remembers every moment of what everyone was doing in front of the base.

“We had two defenders at the front gate,” he recalled. “One walked by over to the visitors center to go on his break, leaving the other sergeant at the main gate. Traffic had kind of slowed by 9:15 in the morning. They were down to a single-lane entry, and we had a semi that had overshot the contractor turnoff to the right,” the colonel said.

“He had missed that and he happened to be blocking some of the traffic and had things a little bit backed up when the vehicle came speeding past him at roughly 80 miles an hour, lost control of his vehicle, locked up his brakes and hit a light pole and slid to a stop right at the visitors center in the middle of the parking lot. At that point, the gentleman opened his door and came out brandishing a weapon.”

“You see the vehicle come in and crash,” Brown continued, “and the defender who was in the gate moves forward, thinking he was about to render medical assistance.

“He thought somebody had a heart attack and passed out at the wheel. So, with his weapon in his hand, he called on his radio for assistance, which, at that point, the gentleman opened his door and brandished a rifle, causing the defender to back pedal and drop his radio. He was off balance.

“The other defender who was on his break came in at an angle and saw the rifle come up to the subject’s shoulder and gave him a verbal engagement,” Brown said. “He verbally challenged him to put his rifle down. The subject then swung his rifle at the new airman. The defender at the gate thought he was pointing the rifle at the visitors center. He didn’t know the other defender was over there. So the defender one, so to speak, at the front gate drew his weapon and the engagement began at that point because he swung his rifle back toward him after verbally engaging him to put his weapon down.”

The shootout was inevitable after McElroy refused to drop his rifle.

“It was roughly five seconds of verbal challenging, and then, when he actually pointed his rifle at the defender, they opened fire on him with their weapons. Two defenders shot at him. The engagement began with both of the defenders firing concentrative rounds at the subject in the vehicle,” Brown said.

“What most people don’t know is there were three other defenders. There were people in their vehicles jumping out and running away. There were people at the visitors center and they saw the guns and they all dropped. The two defenders who were inside could not get out in the manner in which they wanted to.”

“There was a fifth defender, and he was in the commercial lot,” Brown continued. “He’s in the holding pen for the trucks with his canine. The truck driver said, ‘Sergeant, there are shots fired at the front gate. This defender ran so fast to the front gate, he had to unhook his canine unit that was holding him back in order to get to that engagement because, he, too, could not get to his guys fast enough because they’re under fire.”

“We didn’t know if he was alone, or if he was a distracter,” Brown continued. “We didn’t know if there was an additional threat, if there was somebody else already on base as a cooperative assailant. The other defenders cleared the vehicle and made sure there were no additional passengers and secured the area. It’s now a crime scene. He had gas cans in the back of the vehicle. They didn’t know if they were wired for detonation so we had to get explosives ordnance out for disposal to come out.”

The airmen were recently cleared by an Air Force use-of-deadly-force review board. “They found everything was done textbook,” their commander said. “I’m decorating them next week.”

Brown didn’t want to release details of the shooting until the review board completed its work. “I knew our airmen were going to be exonerated,” the commander said.

“On any given day, if you try to affect anyone on this base or in this community, our defenders would be there.”

“To me, the eight seconds of what these airmen did to support each other is really moving to me. You hear a lot about the younger generation. They’re the millenials, Xbox and things of that nature, and you see young men and women who were the defenders without voice commands falling into tactical formation to defend each other when other people were running away they couldn’t get to each other fast enough.”

Brown praised the actions of all the airmen at the front gate that day.

“When you think about what makes our airmen special and when you think about the younger generation that we have, only through genuinely embracing this culture of ours, ensuring common values and defending the public and our nation can you train 19- and 25-year-olds to run to the sound of gunfire. I will always be appreciative to them for that.

“They’re emulating what our senior leaders are emulating,” Brown continued. “I’m blessed. I had an opportunity to sit down with them, five of them. I want to share with them that any pain they may be feeling that I bear the responsibility for it, that they were following orders and followed them to a T. So, whenever they have a question in their mind if they performed as they should, if there was something they could have done differently, I want them to remember every time they followed my orders and the only reason they did is because I can’t be everywhere — and they’re better shots than I am.”