PENSACOLA, Fla. – A week after a deadly shooting rampage at a secure naval base in Pensacola, Florida, three southern communities are coming to grips with the loss of the three young airmen credited with sacrificing their own lives to save so many others.

The 19-year-old long-legged track and field star with a wicked sense of humor who stood up to bullies.

The 23-year-old natural born leader and selfless volunteer who made everyone around him better.

The 21-year-old team motivator who drew everyone in with his infectious smile.

It was more than their deaths at the hands of a Saudi gunman training at the very base where all three men served that connects them. Friends, teachers and family all come back to the same dominant character trait that defined their lives.

The young men who died in the attack at NAS Pensacola put others first, always, and in all things.

Joshua Kaleb Watson often returned to his hometown to volunteer

Joshua Kaleb Watson’s guidance counselor recalls a senior awards program when Watson was a junior at Enterprise High School in Enterprise, Alabama.

“It was 8 or 8:30, the program had concluded, and I was on the stage just picking up some trash off the stage, and I turn around and there’s Josh Watson,” recalled Cami McClenny. “I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘I just waited to see if I could help.’ He had picked up a bunch of trash off the stage. I’m telling you there wasn’t an administrator there, they had all flown the coup. But there was Josh.”

Security is a ‘balancing act’: NAS Pensacola is part military base, part tourist attraction

NAS Pensacola: How sheriff’s deputies responded to the shooting

Watson was everywhere at the school, even long after he graduated. He was a volunteer tutor while he was a student, but even in his regular classes he would walk around from group to group to help others. After graduation and while enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy, he came back often to help his high school rifle team, walking up and down the line, pointing out mistakes and helping students with their form.

Cameron Walters was his division’s ‘team motivator’

Cameron Walters was the quiet guy behind the scenes in high school, his Effingham County, Georgia, teachers remember. Effingham is a bedroom community just northwest of Savannah.

The core values of the Navy — honor, courage and commitment — describe Cameron “to a T,” said former teacher, Henry Dickerson.

“He had a contagious smile,” Dickerson said. “He had a personality that kind of drew you in.”

It was in boot camp where Walters really found his place.

“I don’t think I saw him without a smile on his face for the entirety of boot camp,” said Connor Murphy, who graduated from Recruit Training Command in Great Lakes, Illinois, with Walters in November. The two were in RTC Division 955 together.

Walters was “the hype man,” someone who was vocal and supportive and did what he could to get the best out of his fellow Navy recruits, Murphy said.

Murphy said Walters had a genuine desire to make everyone around him better. 

“He was the team motivator,” Murphy said. “Always trying to keep people’s spirits up.” 

Mohammed Haitham ‘stuck up for’ others

St. Petersburg son “Mo” Mohammed Haitham was much the same. The middle child of three children of 20-year Navy veteran Evelyn Brady, Mo was known as the “sweet one.” 

His high school principal, Erin Savage, said he earned another nickname at the school — the “perfect one.”

Haitham was a good student, a track and field star and a basketball player who also helped manage the girls’ basketball team.

Haitham “had this personality — big smile. People would always gravitate toward him. But he was also a stick-up-for-the-little-guy kinda guy,” said friend and track mate Tobia Ryckis.

Ryckis was bullied during his freshman year at Lakewood High School. It didn’t take long for Haitham to notice and to intervene.

“Mo stuck up for me,” Ryckis said. “He talked to them and they stopped. That was the kind of guy he was.”

The actions of a few saved many at NAS Pensacola

It was likely their drive to help those around them that saved lives Dec. 6. In the days following the shooting, which injured eight others, the three young men’s heroic actions were lauded for saving many.

Watson was standing on guard and was shot when a gunman armed with a 9 mm Glock 45 stormed the building, going classroom to classroom, randomly firing at anyone in sight. Watson was shot multiple times, but he made it outside and told first responders where the shooter was. The details, police said, were invaluable in finding the shooter quickly.

Haitham and Walters shielded others as they were shot, witnesses said.

“There was some real heroism today,” said Capt. Timothy Kinsella, commander at NAS Pensacola, hours after the attack. “I mean, real heroism. I’m devastated. We’re in shock. This is surreal, but I couldn’t be prouder to wear the uniform that I wear because of my brothers and sisters in uniform, civilian or otherwise, that did what they did today to save lives.”

The Navy has posthumously awarded Wings of Gold to all three airmen, making Watson a naval aviator and Haitham and Walters naval aircrewmen.

This weekend, the hometowns of the fallen are starting to say goodbye. Processions are planned for each airman as their remains are carried to their resting place.

Follow Jacob Newby, Timothy Fanning and G.G. Rigsby on Twitter: @jakenewby07, @timothyjfanning and @ggrigsby.

USA Today