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Standing guard

Armed volunteers affiliated with the Oath Keepers of Josephine County and other groups are standing guard outside Grants Pass and Medford military recruiting centers in the wake of last week's shootings in Tennessee.

The attack occurred July 16, when a gunman fired on a military recruiting center at a strip mall in Chattanooga before driving to a U.S. Navy and Marine reserve center and killing four Marines and a sailor there. Since then, groups of armed civilians have gathered outside similar recruiting centers around the country to protect unarmed military personnel. Department of Defense rules prohibit guns inside the centers.

In Grants Pass, all of the military recruiting centers are located in a cluster at a small complex at Northeast Sixth and Savage streets that is also home to Caveman Donuts and Mexican Kitchen.

Mary Emerick, local spokeswoman for the Oath Keepers, said volunteers from that group will be standing guard daily during the hours the recruiting centers are open.

"We have a concern that the officers in recruiting centers are not able to be armed and protect themselves and they're at risk because of that, so we have decided to provide them security support," Emerick said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Pat Fitzsimmons, a retiree and Army veteran who lives in Wilderville, was finishing up his shift, and Tracy Olenik, a local resident who works in retail, was taking over. Meanwhile it was business as usual inside the centers.

The military didn't request help from the Oath Keepers, but the organization's national leadership put out a call earlier this week for local chapters to provide security at recruiting centers. The armed response by groups like the Oath Keepers has drawn a mixed reaction, with some military officials saying they don't want the help.

Recruiters inside the Army recruiting center at the Grants Pass strip mall referred a media inquiry on the issue to a regional spokesman, as did the Army recruiting center in Medford.

The regional office sent a statement that reads in part, "In light of the (Tennessee) attack, the Army will increase vigilance and review our security measures, particularly at standalone sites not connected to a military installation. We are America's Army, and local communities can support our security by reporting suspicious activity, particularly around recruiting centers; if you see something, say something."

Grants Pass Police Chief Bill Landis said the Oath Keepers contacted him before the volunteers headed out to the recruiting centers.

He said they aren't violating any laws by being there, and that he appreciates that they gave police a heads-up about their plans.

Landis said he discussed "what-if" scenarios with the group to ensure that the Oath Keepers and police are on the same page if an emergency situation arises.

The Oath Keepers is a group of current and former military members and police who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, even if it means violating government orders the group deems unconstitutional. Emerick said another group, the 3 Percent patriotic organization, is providing citizen security at military recruiting centers in Medford.

Late Thursday afternoon, Bruce Cook and Armand Gilbert said they'd been standing guard outside the Armed Forces Career Center since 9 a.m., and that others had stood guard the day before.

"We've not had a single negative comment (since we got here)," Cook said, chatting with nearby well-wishers, a handgun holstered on his right hip. "All of this stuff was brought to us," he said, opening a cooler full of bottled water, cookies and other snacks. "I have another cooler in my truck I haven't opened yet."

Gilbert, a three-year Army veteran, said that despite the volunteers' presence not being sanctioned by the military, the recruiters at the Medford facility hadn't been anything but professional towards them.  "They've all been friendly," he said.

Emerick said the Oath Keepers in Grants Pass are well-trained in how to use their weapons.

"They are vetted by us, they sign paperwork, they are former military or law enforcement, so we know that they are capable of handling themselves in any situation that may come up," she said.

The volunteer security operation has been dubbed "Protect the Protectors," Emerick said.

Reach reporter Melissa McRobbie at 541-474-3806 or mmcrobbie@thedailycourier.com. Mail Tribune reporter Thomas Moriarty added to this story.

Armand Gilbert, of Medford, and Bruce Cook, of Medford, stand guard outside the Armed Forces Career Center in Medford on Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch