The three American sailors killed on Dec. 6 during the deadly shooting at a U.S. Navy base in Pensacola, Florida, have been posthumously awarded Wings of Gold by the U.S. Navy.
On Tuesday, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly proclaimed Ensign Joshua K. Watson as a naval aviator, and Airman Mohammed S. Haitham and Airman Apprentice Cameron S. Walters as naval aircrewmen, according to a news release.
— U.S. Navy (@USNavy) December 10, 2019
“It is my honor today to present the Wings of Gold to the families of these three American heroes who were among the first to respond to horrific attacks upon our own naval family and tragically, were also our sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice in protecting their brothers and sisters in arms,” Modly said in a statement.
Modly described 23-year-old Watson, 19-year-old Haitham, and 21-year-old Walters as representing the “highest virtues of naval aviation,” adding that they, without a doubt, “belong in that great fraternity of selfless service to our Navy, our department, and our nation.”
“Although this authorization pales in comparison to their immense bravery in the line of fire, this winging represents the symbolic achievement of the coveted goal that all three came to Pensacola to accomplish: to join the long line of naval aviators, flight officers, and aircrewmen who have served the cause of freedom so valiantly for over a century,” Modly added.
The three sailors were called “heroes” by Vice Adm. DeWolfe H. Miller III for attempting to stop the attack.
“Their actions and sacrifice embodied the competence, courage, and character of those who wear Naval Aviation Wings of Gold. These wings were presented in honor of their brave actions and in everlasting memory of their sacrifice,” Miller said in a statement.
Watson, Haitham, and Walters were due to earn their Wings of Gold after completing rigorous military training.
The shooter, 21-year-old Mohammed Alshamrani, was identified by the FBI as a Saudi Air Force aviation officer, who was training at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Alshamrani was a student naval flight officer of Naval Aviation Schools Command.
He opened fire in a classroom at the U.S. military base on Friday morning using a 9 mm Glock 45 handgun he had obtained legally in the United States before he was shot dead by authorities. He killed the three U.S. sailors and wounded two sheriff’s deputies, one in the arm and one in the knee before one of the deputies killed him. Eight others were also hurt. Both deputies are expected to survive.
The Pentagon announced on Tuesday it was halting operational training of all Saudi Arabian military personnel in the United States until further notice following the shooting. More than 850 Saudi students were suspended from flight training.
Meanwhile, Saudi authorities are investigating whether the shooter—a member of its air force—was radicalized during a trip back to the kingdom, according to Saudi officials.
The shooting is being investigated as an act of terrorism, the FBI announced on Dec. 8.
In an attempt to identify the shooter’s motive, investigators are interviewing his friends, classmates, and associates, as well as personnel from the Pensacola base and witnesses, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported.
Alshamrani’s training was being funded by the Saudi government, and was linked to the sale of U.S. military equipment in Saudi Arabia, reported the WSJ. Before the fatal attack, the 21-year-old had not been suspected for any extremist or criminal activity, Saudi authorities said.
Saudi officials are now trying to find out how the shooter spent his time, and who he was in touch with when he visited Saudi Arabia, before returning to the United States in February 2019 for training.
Days before the shooting, Alshamrani hosted a dinner party where he and three other Saudi aviation students watched videos of mass shootings, a person briefed on the investigation said on Dec. 7.
A Twitter account that reportedly belonged to Alshamrani was identified by the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that tracks militant groups. It found that the now-suspended account contained messages which blamed America for “crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity.”