After shooting, can Pensacola remain a lighthouse for freedom?

Why We Wrote This

To those who live there, Pensacola, Florida, is a peek into what America is and wants to be. The shooting at the naval air station has raised many questions, among them: What happens to its cultural mission of welcoming foreigners to American values?

Cliff Owen/AP
From left, Air Force Col. G. Brian Eddy; Navy Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations; and Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly pause for prayer at the ramp of the Air Force cargo plane carrying the remains of Ensign Cameron Joshua Kaleb Watson, Seaman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, and Seaman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, Dec. 8, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

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Jeffrey Addicott was born in Pensacola, Florida, and his father was a Navy pilot in World War II and the Korean War. Mr. Addicott, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, has seen firsthand the benefits of Naval Air Station Pensacola’s unique role in U.S. foreign policy and national security – having helped train Egyptian soldiers there.

Now the city and the military are confronting the challenge of how to maintain the mission embodied by NAS Pensacola after a member of the Saudi air force receiving flight training there killed three sailors and wounded eight other people on the base.

There is a sense of betrayal, those interviewed say. But Mr. Addicott and others count themselves among those who believe the larger mission embodied by NAS Pensacola – which goes beyond the military to the role of America as a lighthouse for freedom – is still paramount.

“The influence on these people is often indirect,” he says. “They come to Pensacola and get to see the benefit of being in a free and open society, and they carry it back to their own country.”

Fortifications at Naval Air Station Pensacola were more than 100 years old when the city became the site of a Civil War siege. In the modern era, it has graduated thousands of American jet fighter aces.

But the Naval Aviation Schools Command here is also a diplomatic mission of sorts, where thousands of foreign airmen are trained to fly fighter jets. The visitors don’t just stay on base. As hosts, local families regularly invite them to Thanksgiving and community events.

So when Second Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani of the Royal Saudi Air Force killed three sailors and wounded eight others on Friday at Building 633, it felt, says Vietnam veteran and longtime Pensacola resident Tim Daley, “like a stab in the back.”

As victims’ families drove down Navy Boulevard on Monday, a procession of saluting military officers stretched for a mile. Hundreds of civilians also gathered to pay respect. In the crowd, one man was loud and angry, admonishing the United States for trusting foreigners to train alongside U.S. sailors.

“He was fired up to the point where it was scary,” recalls local Chris Reed, a retired mechanic whose son is an Army officer. “As a city, we’re still coming to terms with it. These kinds of things just don’t happen here.”

As fall squalls gather over Escambia Bay, many of the 53,000 people who call Pensacola home are confronting a challenge: how to reconcile the city’s unique role in U.S. foreign policy and national security with a betrayal – a strike at American goodwill amid strains of violent anti-Americanism that simmer throughout the world.

“This attack is like a natural disaster: It blows into our lives and devastates the lives of victims and families and it shakes the bond of long-term trust and the relationship with the community,” says retired Army Lt. Col. Geoffrey Corn, a military law expert at South Texas College of Law in Houston. “The resilience of these programs has been the result of a perception that [saboteurs] are the exception and not the rule, and that it would be a double tragedy to abandon your support for the vast majority of these men who are trying to do the job they’re supposed to do.”

Legendary in the annals of American base towns, Pensacola started as the site of a Spanish fort in 1697, expanding to its current sprawling size at the mouth of the bay, where 16,000 military personnel and 7,400 civilians work. Today it is the home of the Blue Angels.

It is also home to the Navy International Training Center, which leans on the larger community to fulfill a cultural mission of welcoming foreigners, like the 800 Saudi students here.

“The ability to bring foreign students here to train with us, to understand American culture, is ... something that our potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, don’t have,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told “Fox News Sunday.”

Jeffrey Addicott, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, has seen those benefits firsthand. He helped train Egyptian soldiers ahead of that country’s efforts to shoehorn the Muslim Brotherhood out of power. He was born in Pensacola and his father was a Navy pilot in World War II and the Korean War, where he survived being shot down twice.

“Pensacola has a very long history, it connects you with the community, it’s a place where we have long trained foreign officers, and it’s something we get great benefit from,” says Mr. Addicott, now the director of the Warrior Defense Project at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.

To him, Pensacola is a peek into what America is and wants to be. “The influence on these people is often indirect,” he says. “They come to Pensacola and get to see the benefit of being in a free and open society, and they carry it back to their own country.”

Ten years after the attack on Fort Hood, the Pentagon has called the Pensacola attack an act of “presumed” terrorism, given the shooter’s apparent social media postings sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

The Navy identified the victims as Airman Mohammed Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida; Ensign Joshua Kaleb Watson, 23, of Coffee, Alabama; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia. The gunman was also killed. 

On Tuesday, Saudi defense ministers visited NAS Pensacola as part of the investigation. Security measures at U.S. military bases have been beefed up – there was another deadly shooting at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii two days before the Pensacola attack. Some 300 Saudi aviators have been grounded at three Florida bases since Monday, the Pentagon says.

Florida, meanwhile, has now seen half a dozen mass shootings in three years. (While there is no legal definition of a “mass shooting,” the Justice Department defines mass killings as three or more killings in a single incident.) Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a former Naval officer, demanded answers on vetting and a loophole that allowed a foreign national to purchase a gun legally. Foreign pilots, he said, should not be allowed to come “if they hate our country. This is something that should not have been allowed to happen.”

The shootings have renewed calls to arm at least officers and noncommissioned officers at military bases, where sidearms are banned. But more deeply, the shooting has raised questions about the international training program itself, which arose after World War II as the U.S. emerged a global defense stalwart. The Pentagon is undergoing a full review of its vetting processes. Foreign aviators are grounded, for the time being.

Currently, more than 5,100 students from 153 countries are taking part in such training in the U.S.

“If you brought a British or a Dutch or South Korean officer here, nobody ever questioned that they respected what we were doing for them,” says Mr. Corn. “But we’re in a different world where ... we are bringing people in from countries where there are deep strains of animosity toward the United States. We’re applying a model that worked so well for so long, but where we never, ever doubted for a second the alliance between the people themselves. That may now be breaking down.”

Dave Forsman, the commander of American Legion Post 240 just outside the station gate, has all the service branches’ flags at half-staff. On Friday, the post, which has some 1,400 members, became a hub as family members attempted to reach those on base.

Yes, there is a sense of betrayal, agrees Mr. Forsman. But he counts himself among those who believe the larger mission embodied by NAS Pensacola – which goes beyond the military, to the role of America as a lighthouse for freedom – is still paramount.

But he also knows that rebuilding trust after betrayal will require forbearance, patience, and faith in the foreigners who come to Pensacola to learn more than American warfare.

“Just because you have one bad apple doesn’t mean the whole orchard is tainted,” he says.

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