By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
Attacks on places of worship are becoming commonplace both in the United States and abroad. It doesn’t matter if you are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim; there are those who hate you and want to take you out when you are at your most vulnerable—in Armyspeak that would be what is known as a “mass cal.” In regular English, that would be a mass casualty incident which would occur in a population-dense environment such as a church, synagogue, or mosque. Slaughtering people when they are worshipping makes perfect sense to a shooter because there is less chance of someone stopping you.
Such was the case on April 28 when a 19-year-old burst into a synagogue in California and killed a 60-year-old woman as she threw herself in front of the rabbi, saving his life. The rabbi’s hand was wounded in the shooting. Former soldier Oscar Stewart, who served in the Army during the ‘90s and then re-upped after 9/11, finished out his military service in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and was present for the Pesach service. He was in the synagogue on the last day of Passover, and heard the shots. At first, he started to run out of the synagogue along with everyone else. But then, something else kicked in. I have a feeling that it was part instinct, part training, and part of what makes me love first responders of all types, military and civilian: being compelled to run toward the danger.
Please understand that the worshipper became the warrior in the blink of an eye, and most remarkably ran unarmed toward the shooter. Oscar saw muzzle flashes and kept on. He roared at the assailant with a voice that inside sounded to fellow worshippers like the unified voices of four men, and the Catholic priest across the street heard it as he conducted Mass. To my knowledge, the doors of the Catholic church were closed during their service.
Oscar’s courage did not stop there. He chased the guy all the way to his car and hit the car repeatedly with his hand. The shooter, who didn’t appear to Oscar to have had a great deal of experience with his weapon, was going to try to shoot again, but a Border Patrol agent named Morales called from behind for Oscar to get out of the way and fired off five shots before the shooter drove away. Remarkably, Oscar had the presence of mind to memorize the license plate number.
What the shooter did have experience with, though, is age-old maniacal hatred in the form of anti-Semitism. He is rife with it. By contrast, while Oscar isn’t exactly, “Aw, shucks, ma’am, I was just doing my job,” when he has appeared on interviews his pièce de résistance has been what I can only describe as a confident humility. Soldiers are trained to take a bullet, but this level of courage isn’t something you can train into someone. It is something that flows out unabated when the need arises. A worshipper and a warrior, that is Oscar Stewart, and soldier, we owe you. Thank you for your service, then and now.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner