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“Did he shoot then? Was he going to shoot? I do not know. I just knew I had to take it off.”

Richard Fierro at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado on November 21, 2022. Daniel Brenner/The New York Times

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — Richard M. Fierro was sitting at a table at Club Q with his wife, daughter, and friends on Saturday watching a drag show when suddenly a gunshot rang out in the nightclub, and instincts were forged in four combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan immediately joined in. Fight, he told himself, protect your people.

In an interview conducted at his home on Monday, where his wife and daughter were still recovering from their injuries, Fierro, 45, who spent 15 years as an army officer and retired as a major in 2013, according to military records, described the charge by chaos in the club by defeating the bandit and beating him bloody with the bandit’s own weapon.

“I don’t know exactly what I did, I just went into combat mode,” said Fierro, shaking his head as he stood in his driveway, the American flag hanging limp in the frosty air. “I just know I have to kill this guy before he kills us.”

Authorities are holding 22-year-old Anderson Lee Aldrich on suspicion of killing five people and injured 18 others in a rampage at the club that lasted only a few minutes. The d*ath toll could have been much higher, officials said Sunday, had the bar’s patrons not apprehended the armed man.

“He saved a lot of lives,” Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said of Fierro. The mayor said he spoke to Fierro and was struck by his humility. “I have never met a person who engaged in such heroic deeds and behaved with such humility.”

It was supposed to be a quiet family night – the war veteran and his wife Jess joined their daughter Kassandra, her longtime boyfriend Raymond Green Vance and two family friends to watch one of his daughter’s friends perform in drag.

It was Fierro’s first time at a drag show and he was thrilled. Having spent 15 years in the military, he now reveled in his role as a civilian and father as he watched one of his daughter’s old high school friends perform.

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Richard Fierro at his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado on November 21, 2022. – Daniel Brenner/The New York Times

“These kids want to live this way, they want to have fun,” he said, describing the night. “I’m happy about that because that’s what I fought for so they can do whatever they want.”

Fierro was trying to be better at coming out. He’d been shot at in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’d seen roadside b*mbs destroy the trucks in his platoon, and he’d lost friends. Twice awarded the Bronze Star.

Wars were both past and present. There were things he never forgot. For a long time after returning home, the crowds drove him crazy. He couldn’t help being alert. In restaurants he sat against the wall, facing the door. No matter how much he tried to relax, part of his body was always ready to att*ck, like an itch that couldn’t be scratched.

He was too often distrustful, quick to anger. It was hell for his wife and daughter. He was working on it. There were medications and sessions with a psychologist. He got rid of all the guns in the house. He grew his hair long and grew a long white beard to distance himself from his days in uniform.

He and his wife ran a successful local brewery named Atrevida Beer Co. and had a warm relationship with his daughter and her longtime boyfriend. But he also accepted the fact that the war would always be with him.

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Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers speaks during a press conference the day after the nightclub shooting in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Sunday, November 20, 2022. – Daniel Brenner/The New York Times

But that night at Club Q, he wasn’t thinking about the war at all. The women danced. He was joking with his friends. Then the shooting started.

It was a staccato of flashes at the front door, the familiar sound of small arms fire. Fierro knew that all too well. Without thinking, he hit the floor, dragging his friend with him. Bullets flew over the bar, smashing bottles and glasses. People screamed. Fierro looked up to see a bear-sized figure, weighing just over 300 pounds, wearing body armor and carrying a rifle very similar to the one he carried in Iraq. The shooter was walking through the bar towards the patio door, from which dozens of people had fled.

The platoon leader’s long suppressed instincts revived. He ran across the room, grabbed the thug by the handle on the back of his body armor, dragged him to the floor and jumped on top of him.

“Did he shoot then? Was he supposed to shoot? I don’t know, Fierro said.
“I just knew I had to take it off.”

They both fell to the floor. The marksman’s military rifle clattered just out of range. Fierro started to att*ck him, but then he saw the bandit approaching with a pistol in the other hand.

“I snatched the gun out of his hand and just started hitting him over the head, again and again,” said Fierro.

Holding the man down and striking his skull with the pistol, Fierro began shouting orders. He shouted at another patron of the club, using a series of expletives to grab his rifle, then told the patron to start kicking the shooter in the face. A drag dancer passed by, and Fierro said he had her trample the att*cker with her high heels. Fierro said he was beating the gunman the entire time, shouting obscenities.

What allowed him to cast aside all fear and act? He said he had no idea. Probably those old war instincts that had weighed heavily on him at home for so long suddenly found their place now that something like war had come to his hometown.

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Richard Fierro (left) talks to his brother Ed Fierro, who supports him at his home during a press conference about his efforts to subdue a gunman at the Club Q nightclub, shooting Monday, November 21, 2022, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. – Photo AP/Jack Dempsey

“In a fight most of the time nothing happens, but this is this crazy minute, this crazy minute and you are being tested in that minute. It becomes a habit,” he said. “I don’t know how I took that guy’s gun away, I have no idea. I’m just a fat old vet dude, but I knew I had to do something.”

When the police arrived a few minutes later, the gunman was no longer fighting, Fierro said. Fierro said he feared he had killed him.

Fierro was covered in blood. He got up and frantically wandered around in the darkness, looking for his family. He noticed his friends lying on the floor. One was shot multiple times in the chest and arm. Another was shot in the leg.

When more police arrived, Fiero said he started screaming as if he was back in the fight. Victims of an accident. Victims of an accident. I need a medic here now. He shouted to the police that the place was clean, the shooter was down, but people needed help. He said he took tourniquets from a young policeman and put them on his bleeding colleagues. He said he tried to talk to them calmly while he was working, telling them everything would be fine.

He spotted his wife and daughter at the edge of the room and was about to approach them when he was accosted.

The officers rushing into the chaotic scene noticed a bloody man with a gun, not knowing if he was a threat. They handcuffed him and locked him in the backseat of a police car for over an hour. He said he screamed and begged to be released so he could see his family.

He was finally freed. He was taken to the hospital with his wife and daughter, who suffered only minor injuries. His friends were there and are still there, in a much more serious condition. Everyone was alive. But his daughter’s boyfriend was nowhere to be found. They lost him in the chaos. They went back to the club looking for him, they circled the familiar streets hoping to find him walking home. But there was nothing.

The family received a call late Sunday from his mother. He died in a shootout.

When Fierro heard, he said, he held his daughter and cried.

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Raymond Green Vance’s portrait of victim Raymond Green Vance surrounded by candles and flowers during a vigil for mass shooting victims at Club Q, an LGBTQ nightclub, in Acacia Park, Colorado Springs, Colorado, November 21, 2022. – Cecilia SANCHEZ / AFP

Part of him cried because he knew what was coming. The families of the dead people who had been shot were at war now, just like him. They will fight, as did he and many of his fighting companions. They will suffer from misplaced vigilance, they will att*ck with anger, they will never be able to scratch the itching fear, they will be torn by the desire to forget and the desire to always remember.

“My little girl screamed and I cried with her,” he said. “On the way home from the hospital, I told them, ‘Look, I’ve been through this before, and when it happens, just move on to the next patrol. You have to get it out of your head. Yes, you cured it. You cured it by doing more. You finally come home safely. But here I’m worried there’s no next patrol. It’s harder to heal. Are you home yet.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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