Citadel cadets at ROTC student's funeral in Florida

Citadel cadet Justin Friedlander shovels dirt onto the casket of Peter Wang, a 15-year-old Junior ROTC cadet who was one of 17 people killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. Friedlander and fellow Citadel cadet Michael Cassell (in foreground) are both Douglas High alumni and traveled to Florida this week to pay their respects at a series of funerals. Provided/Michael Cassell

First-year Citadel cadet Michael Cassell was on his knees scrubbing a barracks floor when his mom texted him.

"Shooting at MSD, check the news."

"MSD" meant Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the school in Parkland, Fla., where Cassell graduated last year. He ran to his room to find the news on his laptop: A live stream from a helicopter looking down on his alma mater.

Rumors spread. Old classmates texted each other in a frenzy desperate to know who had died and who had survived. Cassell went back to scrubbing floors but his mind was racing.

Seventeen people died and at least 14 were injured in the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Douglas High. Cassell and a fellow Citadel freshman, Justin Friedlander, received permission to leave campus this week to attend a series of funerals back home in south Florida.

Reached by phone Friday, Friedlander said old familiar scenes had been transformed.

"Driving past the high school, it’s crazy," Friedlander said. "There are memorials everywhere. It’s always packed, barricaded, police cars everywhere, people going in and out of the building."

Cassell and Friedlander both knew several victims.

There was Nicholas Dworet, the 17-year-old star swimmer who dreamed of competing in the 2020 Olympics. Friedlander talked to him on a daily basis and played alongside him on the school's water polo team.

There was Aaron Feis, the assistant football coach who died shielding students with his body. Cassell called Feis a mentor. Last year he helped Friedlander change a flat tire in the senior parking lot.

They also felt connected to students they'd never met — particularly ones who, like Cassell and Friedlaner, participated in the school's Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

The first funeral they attended Tuesday was for Peter Wang, the 15-year-old JROTC cadet whose last known act was holding open a door so others could escape. 

"Peter was buried in his JROTC uniform, and that’s something that I wore for the last four years of my life with so much pride," Cassell said. "The Army gave him the JROTC Medal of Heroism, which is the highest award you can earn, and this is the kind of action that it takes."

Cassell and Friedlander said they were overwhelmed by the support they received at The Citadel — even from hard-nosed upperclassmen who mete out discipline under the public military college's fourth-class system. When it came time for Cassell's company to march last Friday, cadets wrote the names of the Douglas High victims on their parade gloves.

"That’s the type of school it is," Cassell said. "The support that I have back at school, it means so much."

Cassell and Friedlander also said they support the Douglas High students who have reshaped the debate on gun control in the past week, appearing in forums and legislative chambers and on national news to demand change after their classmates died from semi-automatic gunfire.

Grade-school students in the Charleston area plan to walk out of school as a national act of solidarity March 14, and others are raising money for a March 24 Charleston sister event to the March for Our Lives in Washington D.C.

"If Sandy Hook and Columbine were not enough to spark a catalyst for change, this will definitely be it," Friedlander said.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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