An army private is being heralded as a hero for his role in saving kids caught in the mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, this weekend. Still, his recollection of the shooting highlights the deep trauma gun and police violence have left on this country.
In interviews with multiple outlets, Army Pfc. Glen Oakley said he was shopping for a jersey at a Foot Locker next to the Walmart when a child ran in and told people in the store that there was a shooter at the megastore. Oakley told CNN that at first, he didn’t believe or pay much attention to the kid until he walked out of the store and heard gunshots.
As chaos descended on the mall, Oakley spotted a group of children running around the parking lot without their parents.
“Only thing I think of is pick up as many kids I can as possible,” Oakley said. Which is what he did.
“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,” the soldier told CNN. “They were anxious, when they were in my arms, they were trying to jump out of my arms but trying to keep them as tight as possible. They are kids, so they don’t understand what is going on.”
Oakley credited his response to his military experience and training.
“I was just thinking about if I had a child and I wasn’t around, how I would want another man to react if they saw my child running around,” Oakley told CNN.
But there’s one more detail Oakley shared with reporters that’s chilling. After spotting police, Oakley, who was armed, said he let the three kids he was holding go and pulled out his phone “in case they were going to shoot me and started recording while I was running.” He also told KTSM TV he showed officers the clip in his gun was full to prove he wasn’t the shooter.
The soldier was clearly deeply traumatized by the shooting, which claimed 22 lives and injured scores more. (The gunman, who was captured alive, reportedly posted a racist manifesto online that specifically focused on a “Hispanic invasion” into the U.S. It is the language of white nationalists, and rhetoric Donald Trump has deployed as president.) Immediately afterward, while speaking to a KTSM TV reporter near the scene of the mass killing, Oakley apologized for shaking during the interview.
In a later interview conducted on Sunday, hours after another mass shooter went on a rampage in Dayton, Ohio, Oakley broke down crying as he recalled the scene at the border town again for reporters.
“I didn’t get any sleep last night. I don’t want to think about what happened because it was tragic,” the 22-year-old army specialist said. “This was the worst thing that ever happened in my life and I don’t want to keep having flashbacks about what happened.”
He asked that the media pay attention to Ohio, and to the victims of the mass shootings.
“I don’t want to talk about what went on [in El Paso] because I just want to forget about it.”