Meet Anthony Triplett Jr. He’s 31, he lives near Lacey and he’s a nine-year Army veteran with two children enrolled in North Thurston Public Schools’ Evergreen Forest Elementary and Nisqually Middle School.
He has worked in federal security, he says, and he followed that by forming a nonprofit called All in a Days Work to address veteran suicides.
And then on May 24, a mass school shooting unfolded in Uvalde, Texas, killing 21 people, including 19 students.
Triplett’s children asked him if they had to return to school the next day.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Triplett. Galvanized by the moment, Triplett asked himself, “What can I do?”
Around the time of the Texas shooting, there were elevated concerns about school safety, said North Thurston Public Schools spokesman Aaron Wyatt. Some in the community offered to patrol school hallways and some asked if bullet-proof glass could be installed, he recalls.
Triplett decided to form Veteran Overwatch, essentially offering his services as a security guard. He wrote up a proposal and sent it to the city of Lacey and North Thurston Public Schools, he says, but did not get a response. He then took it upon himself about a week or two after the Uvalde shooting to stand guard near North Thurston High School.
Triplett said he is working with other veterans, but he appears to be the public face of the group.
When he is on watch, Triplett says he wears a bullet-proof vest, he identifies himself as part of Veteran Overwatch and he carries a pistol. He also has a service dog named Jade. Washington state has an open-carry law, meaning he is allowed to carry a weapon in public view. He also is licensed to carry a concealed weapon, which requires a background check, Triplett points out.
That first day near North Thurston High School, he says some of the students who left campus during lunchtime greeted him warmly, but some were concerned, and it wasn’t long before he was visited by school officials and a Lacey police officer, he said.
Triplett said he knows all too well what it means to be a Black man in America with a gun. He understands if people are concerned and he welcomes those questions, he said.
“I talked to them for a moment and their perspective changed,” he said about the interactions that day near the high school.
An hour or two later that day he says he visited Evergreen Forest Elementary, and once again he was met by concerned school officials. Triplett recalled one official who was on edge, but later relaxed when he explained he was a concerned parent and not a vigilante. However, the two of them talked for so long, he says the principal of the school finally emerged, asking of her colleague, “Are you OK?”
Triplett says a Thurston County Sheriff’s Deputy also spent about an hour with him that same day, wanting to make sure he was not antagonizing anyone and that he remained off school property.
North Thurston spokesman Wyatt said the district is aware of Triplett, but as long as he’s not on school property, he’s not breaking any laws.
“It’s a public square,” said Wyatt, but added they have been explicit about not bringing guns onto school campuses.
Triplett says no one has asked him not to stand outside a school, although he says school officials have asked for his business card and have asked to be notified when he’s going to be near schools. He also has texted police when he’s going to be on guard.
Otherwise, he says the public response has been positive.
“It’s been nothing but thank yous, cries of support, nothing negative at all,” he said.
In fact, the day The Olympian visited Evergreen Forest to see Triplett, a parent confirmed that she had seen him and trusted him because she, too, is a veteran and understands the kind of training that veterans receive. Triplett acknowledged he might receive more support in the Lacey area because of its large military population and its ties to Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
A broader conversation
But not everyone is happy.
In August, The Olympian published a letter to the editor from a woman outlining her concerns about Veteran Overwatch and the support it has received from Thurston County Sheriff’s candidate Derek Sanders.
“As a parent, this seriously concerns me,” said Kathleen Tanaka about Veteran Overwatch. “If Derek Sanders is elected, is he going to provide the background checks, psych evaluations, and training? If these veterans want to be in security, why don’t they apply for the Sheriff’s Office, complete the rigorous background checks, academy training, and continual firearms and other training? Likely because they cannot pass the background, psych, medical or drug testing required.”
Sanders, a deputy sheriff who is running against Sheriff John Snaza, discovered Triplett on social media and then met him in person.
“I’m proud to say I fully trust any veteran volunteer who can pass a comprehensive background check and psychological examination to protect our schools, and I look forward to working on this program collaboratively with veterans, students, teachers, and school officials as your next Sheriff,” Sanders said in a Facebook post about Veteran Overwatch.
In a conversation with The Olympian, Sanders, like Triplett, said he has no interest in vigilantes. But he does believe that veterans could be trained to fill a role in security. For the idea to move forward, it needs a pilot program, said Sanders, beginning with a pilot school, plus support from the school board and school district.
Veteran Overwatch would not replace law enforcement, he said.
“This not the fix, but is part of the fix” said Sanders about protecting schools.
The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office is aware of Triplett, said Sheriff John Snaza.
Snaza, a veteran himself, says he supports veterans and that he’s not questioning their qualifications or experience.
“They have a lot to offer our community,” he said.
But he made it clear that the job of protecting schools is one for law enforcement. His deputies have received the necessary training, plus his department has the relationships with North Thurston Public Schools and the community.
North Thurston Public Schools works with four school resource officers — three Lacey police officers and one Thurston County Sheriff’s deputy. The deputy rotates between one middle school and seven elementary schools, according to district information.
Triplett believes that local law enforcement is undermanned and overworked and that response times to a school shooting would suffer as a result.
“I can’t wait for the first officer to arrive while students are bleeding out,” he said.
Snaza also feels that in the event of an actual emergency, having both police and Veteran Overwatch at the scene gets very confusing.
“How do I tell the bad from the good?” he said.
Triplett believes that Veteran Overwatch would eventually evolve to a point where they would be uniformed security inside of schools and have radios to communicate with police.
The Olympian reached out to North Thurston school board President Dave Newkirk about Triplett. He was not aware of him, but after checking with the district, Newkirk came to the same conclusion: Triplett had the right to do what he was doing.
Newkirk, a former Marine, says he understands what Triplett is going through. Many veterans suffer from a lack of purpose after leaving the military and sometimes struggle to find that new role in the civilian world. It’s something that Newkirk experienced, too.
“He is missing that sense of purpose,” said Newkirk about Triplett.
Triplett agreed, saying Veteran Overwatch has changed him. “This has given me a sense of purpose that I have longed for.”