Comprehending the tragedy of mass shootings is always difficult — the senseless nature of the act reduces human life to a seemingly meaningless triviality, extinguished for the sake of some crude ideology or a sick young man’s thirst for recognition. As we see the great evil that some are capable of inflicting on others — small children robbed suddenly of their innocence, alone in a world that seems colder and more terrible than it did moments before — our consciences can scarcely bear to consider a suffering so unspeakable that it cannot be conveyed in words.
And yet, as humanity reveals itself as capable of unthinkable evil, so too it demonstrates a tendency for moral courage and heroic selflessness. The two opposing dispositions often reveal themselves simultaneously, in relation to each other; this weekend was no different. On Saturday, as a white-supremacist terrorist shot and killed at least 22 people, injuring many more, in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, Private First Class Glendon Oakley Jr. risked his life in the oncoming fire to save the innocent.
Oakley, a 22-year-old automated-logistics specialist in the Army, had recently returned from a deployment in Kuwait. He was shopping at a sporting-goods store near the Walmart when a visibly distressed young boy burst into the store to inform them of the active shooter. At the time, no one in the store understood the gravity of the situation. After all, said Oakley, “he’s just a little kid . . . are you going to believe him?”
But as Oakley exited the store minutes later, he was immediately confronted with the horrific reality of the situation. Gunshots rang out across the mall, punctuated by screams, and masses of people were running everywhere.
Among the panicked chaos of runners were young children — without their parents.
That’s what kicked Oakley into action. As the possessor of a concealed-carry license in Texas, the off-duty Army private often carries a gun in public. Saturday was no exception. Pulling out his Glock 9mm, he made his way to one of the mall’s open play areas, where a group of children were stranded.
“I was just focused on the kids, I wasn’t really worried about myself. So I just put my head down and just ran as fast as I could,” he said. “They were anxious, when they were in my arms, they were trying to jump out of my arms, but [I was] trying to keep them as tight as possible. They are kids, so they don’t understand what is going on.”
When they finally arrived at the mall’s exit, they “ran into a whole batch of police pointing their guns at us,” says Oakley. Once he saw them, he says he put away his gun and pulled out his phone camera “in case they were going to shoot me and started recording while I was running.”
Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Killeen, Texas, Oakley had already had a few run-ins with police. As an adolescent, he had been in and out of jail for minor marijuana charges and getting in fights. He had also experienced his fair share of gun violence.
“I’ve been in pointless shootouts at a young age,” he said in an interview. “Killeen is a lot of pointless shootouts.”
But when he moved to Georgia as a young man, he met an Army recruiter who took a chance on him and helped him enlist, despite his background. The military changed his life, and it’s also what he credits for his quick, decisive action during those fateful minutes in the El Paso mall. When repeatedly asked about the exceptional courage that it took to put the lives of unfamiliar children before his own, Oakley deflects to this: It was just what anyone who had been trained in the military would do. To this, he added, “I was thinking about — as if it was my child, if I had one, if my child was in the same predicament, what I’d want somebody else to do.”
But at a press conference that he reluctantly gave the day after the shooting, Oakley’s chest did not swell with pride at the descriptions of his own heroism. Rather, he broke down and wept for the children he could not save — for the little bodies that he was unable to protect.
“I understand it was heroic, and I’m looked at as a hero for it, but that wasn’t the reason for me,” said Oakley. “I’m just focused on the kids I could not get, and the families that were lost. It hurts me, like, they were part of me. . . .The spotlight should not be on me right now. I want the media to go out to the families that lost their children and make sure they’re okay . . . because the focus should not be on me.”
We all weep with Glendon Oakley. As we attempt to fathom the tragedies of the weekend’s dual mass shootings, human reason fails us. Perhaps this is for the best. In El Paso, as in Dayton, Ohio, the aggrieved are often numbed by the magnitude of their own devastation and their inability to understand it. Oakley, too, is not immune to this. It seems clear, in his interviews, that he can’t yet make sense of it all.
Tragedies are often complex and hard to comprehend, but heroism is a simple act. Oakley’s display of it is inspiring, even as he shies away from praise — as any true hero does. We owe him our thanks.