SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Texas – First responders and law enforcement personnel stood with heads bowed Saturday in Sutherland Springs for a Veterans Day ceremony that also was meant to honor the more than two dozen people killed a block away at a church.
About 100 people attended the ceremony outside the town’s community center, where a wreath was placed near flags to remember those killed in last weekend’s mass shooting, nearly half of whom had ties to the Air Force.
“Maybe this will start the healing process that will get Sutherland Springs and Wilson County to put this horrific tragedy behind us and look to the future,” county Judge Richard Jackson told the gathering, his voice breaking.
Jackson, the county’s top administrator, thanked the first responders and others who rushed to First Baptist Church in the aftermath of Sunday’s shooting. What they saw there will affect them the rest of their lives, he said.
The attacker, Devin Patrick Kelley, killed 25 people – authorities put the number at 26 because one was pregnant – and wounded 20 others. Kelley, 26, died of what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound after being shot and chased by two men who heard gunfire from the church.
Investigators have said the shooting appeared to stem from a domestic dispute involving Kelley and his mother-in-law, who sometimes attended services at the church but was not present on Sunday.
Sutherland Springs is about 30 miles southeast of San Antonio and not far from several military posts, including Lackland Air Force Base. The Air Force’s chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, said 12 of those killed were either members of the Air Force or had family ties to it.
Among them were Scott and Karen Marshall, both 56, who had decided to retire in nearby La Vernia after meeting when they were in the service together more than 30 years ago. On Thursday, a military funeral was held for them at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
Retired Chief Warrant Officer Mike Gonzales, who led Saturday’s ceremony, moved to Sutherland Springs with his wife in 2009 to raise their children. He said many veterans choose to live in the San Antonio area because of its deep military ties, and families tend to migrate to the city’s surrounding rural areas.
“We come here to enjoy life, to get quiet and to raise our children,” he said, later adding, “We’ve been to war zones and seen that tragedy firsthand. Never did we think that tragedy would strike here.”
The gunman also had Air Force ties. He was given a bad conduct discharge after pleading guilty to assaulting his then-wife and stepson.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, of Texas, told the gathering to lean on one another for support as the town attempts to heal. He said $10 million in federal assistance has been secured to help cover overtime costs for law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation.
Some in the crowd Saturday wore shirts that said “Sutherland Springs Strong” and included an outline of Texas with a heart of the town’s location. The shirts were donated by Brenda Bierd, who lives on the Gulf Coast and whose home was damaged by Hurricane Harvey in late August.
Bierd said she has work that needs to be done gutting her home, but she felt compelled to drive to Sutherland Springs a few days ago to offer her support.
“I hadn’t even heard of Sutherland Springs before the shooting, but this is what you do,” she said. “I just had this feeling I needed to be here.”
Saturday was the first opportunity some had to visit the town since the attack. People parked along a farm road to walk with balloons, signs and flowers to a memorial of white crosses behind First Baptist Church.
Among them was Jackie Lee, who said she asked her friends on Facebook if anyone would come with her from San Antonio this weekend. Before long, about two dozen said they would.
“It was on my heart since it happened,” she said. “I needed to come to show the community some support, to show these people some support.”