Three young men, one of them not yet 20, recently arrived in the Florida Panhandle, fresh-faced and eager to pursue their dreams at the cradle of American naval aviation.
Kaleb Watson was so driven that, at only 23 years old, he had already bought a house in the area and had mowed its lawn. Mohammed Haitham, 19, traveled back to his home down the coast to watch his kid brother play high school football. Cameron Walters, 21, graduated just a week and a half ago from boot camp, which he told loved ones he had actually enjoyed.
All three sailors were fatally shot on Friday at Naval Air Station Pensacola when a Saudi military trainee with a handgun opened fire inside a classroom building. Eight others were injured before the gunman was killed by a sheriff’s deputy. The F.B.I. said it was investigating the attack under the presumption that it was an act of terrorism.
On Sunday, family and friends of the three dead remembered them as loving and responsible young men starting to make their way in the world.
Officers told the mothers of two of the victims that their sons died trying to confront the gunman.
“What you saw was people running to the danger to try to save others,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said in a news conference after a funeral procession for the three men, whose remains were flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for autopsies.
Governor DeSantis singled out Ensign Watson, whom he said deserved posthumous honors for his bravery. The ensign’s commanding officer told his parents that the young man had jumped over a desk or counter when the gunman started shooting.
“He hollered back for people to get out, to run, and he tackled him,” Sheila Watson, Ensign Watson’s mother, said in an interview, her voice wavering with emotion. “He was fighting with him, trying to unarm him, and he was shooting my baby.”
Ensign Watson was shot five times. He managed to crawl out of the classroom building, Ms. Watson said, and gave emergency personnel a description of the gunman and his location, “and then he collapsed.”
She recalled her son telling his parents from the time he was in the United States Naval Academy about how he would respond if he was faced with an active shooter: “He told us, ‘Mom, Dad, if I’m ever confronted with them, you know I’m going in full force.’ And that’s what he did.”
Ensign Watson, whose given name was Joshua but who went by his middle name, Kaleb, was the youngest of three brothers. He first wanted to be a Marine, like one of his uncles, and later a Navy SEAL, his mother said. He ultimately decided to become a pilot, so he could have a military career and later perhaps a civilian career as well.
He was a skilled marksman, captain of his high school rifle team in Enterprise, Ala., and later at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He moved to Pensacola two weeks ago to begin flight training.
He had purchased a five-bedroom home — along with a leather sectional sofa, a lawn mower and weed trimmer, his mother said — and was looking forward to renting rooms in it to other aviation students and to living only a couple of hours’ drive away from his parents.
The family spent Thanksgiving together, and Ensign Watson and his father, Benjamin Watson, both Auburn fans, watched the Iron Bowl. Then, for the first time in the five years since he left for the Naval Academy, the young man helped cut down a Christmas tree and decorate it.
“He was the one that put the angel on top,” Ms. Watson said. “And it’s still there.”
Airman Haitham’s family moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The airman, who went by “Mo,” was home in St. Petersburg the day after Thanksgiving to watch his younger brother play high school football. Susan Alvaro, an assistant principal at Lakewood High School, where Airman Haitham graduated last year, said he gave her a big hug when he saw her at the game.
Ms. Alvaro’s nickname for Mo Haitham was “the Perfect One,” a title she said she did not bestow lightly after nearly 25 years in education. He was a good student, a track star and a basketball player who also helped manage the girls’ basketball team.
“Mohammed would walk into any room and it would light up,” Ms. Alvaro said. “He had this magnetic personality — big smile, always happy. And people would always gravitate toward him.”
One school year, during physical conditioning before basketball season, his teammates challenged one another to a mile-long race, Ms. Alvaro recalled. They did not know that Mr. Haitham, who was slighter than some of the other players, was a middle-distance specialist. He started the race pacing himself behind some of the bigger players who sped ahead, and then overtook them when they began to tire, winning the race and earning the team’s respect, Ms. Alvaro said.
Airman Haitham’s commanding officer told his father, Sameh Haitham, that his son had also tried to take down the gunman.
Mr. Haitham said he had spoken to his son a few days earlier, when Airman Haitham called to say he had gotten a new phone and his own cellphone plan. He would have turned 20 on Dec. 16.
Mr. Haitham said his son briefly attended college but quickly realized he wanted to do something more hands-on. He surprised his family when he joined the Navy, but said he was happy in the service, Mr. Haitham said.
Erin Savage, the principal of Lakewood High, visited the grieving family on Saturday. “In my mind, I see his smile and his face,” Ms. Savage said of the airman. “And the part that breaks me up is now seeing him in my mind trying to defend himself and trying to defend others. That was Mohammed. That was him.”
Airman Walters last saw his family during his boot-camp graduation in Illinois late last month. He traveled from there directly to Pensacola, where he was an apprentice, according to Heather Walters, his stepmother, who described him as “the most caring, fun-loving person you’ve ever met.”
“He was the kid that we had to celebrate his birthday for a solid two weeks, because that’s just how he was,” Ms. Walters said.
The third of seven siblings in a blended family from Richmond Hill, Ga., Airman Walters graduated from high school in 2016. He was proud to have completed boot camp and was in the Navy Reserve, but was considering enlisting for full-time active service, Ms. Walters said. His father had also been in the Navy.
“He wanted to follow his dad’s footsteps,” Ms. Walters said. “Our other boys want to be in the Navy, too, but we’re not letting them,” in the wake of the shooting, she added.
Airman Walters called his family on FaceTime every day to tell them about his work and his tests. So when he did not call on Friday, she said, “we knew something must be up.”
The family did not receive confirmation of his death until late Friday night, a wait that Ms. Walters described as heart-wrenchingly long. She said the Navy has also told them little about its investigation, about whether Saudi Arabia will compensate the families, or about when the airman’s remains will return home.
“We’re just sitting around here,” Ms. Walters said, “going crazy.”
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