“These perverse ideologues, warped theocrats. They may be able to inspire a single lone wolf to commit a savage act, but they can never, never threaten who we are.”
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden began with a wish.
As he stood on stage at McKenzie Arena during a solemn ceremony for the five men who died when a gunman attacked two military sites in Chattanooga on July 16, Biden looked at the families of the dead.
"I wish that I was not here," he said, quietly and slowly. "For I have some sense of how hard it is for you to be here."
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Biden's 46-year-old son died in May, and the vice president seemed to channel his own grief as he addressed the families of the men who died in Chattanooga after the attack one month ago today: Sgt. Carson Holmquist, 25, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40, Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells, 21, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, 35, and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26.
At times he spoke barely above a whisper, but at other moments he shouted, voice booming over the national officials, military service members and hundreds of locals there to honor the fallen Marines and sailor.
Biden ignored the careful rhetoric of FBI investigators, who have refused to call gunman Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez a terrorist or say he was motivated by extreme Islam. Instead, Biden placed the attack squarely in the center of America's war on terror by labeling Abdulazeez a "perverted jihadist" and warned America's enemies the nation will not back down.
"These perverse ideologues, warped theocrats," he said. "They may be able to inspire a single lone wolf to commit a savage act, but they can never, never threaten who we are. When this perverted jihadist struck, everyone responded."
He praised the service members, law enforcement and first responders for their actions that day but spent most of his 20-minute speech addressing the families of the men who died and praising the men's dedication to their country. He repeatedly called Islamic extremists "cowards" and vowed that the nation would not be moved.
"America never yields, never bends," he said. "Never cowers, never stands down. Endures, responds and always overcomes. Because we are Americans. And never, never underestimate us."
The crowd gave him a standing ovation as he left the stage. The majority of the arena was empty, with only a fraction of the 8,500 available seats filled.
The poor turnout was an about-face from the earliest days after the attack, when thousands of flag-toting locals lined miles of Chattanooga streets during the funeral processions for Wyatt and Smith. More thousands visited the makeshift memorials at the shooting sites to pay their respects and churches overflowed during vigils.
But few turned up Saturday. People who did attend blamed the traffic, the weather or the tight security for the lackluster turnout. Parts of Interstate 75, U.S. Highway 27, state Highway 153 and several roads downtown were halted or closed altogether at times Saturday, bringing traffic in the area to a standstill.
Some attendees said they showed up expecting to be turned away because the arena was full and were surprised to find ample space. Perhaps, they said, the expectation of a full house kept people at home.
"I was disappointed," said attendee Todd Larson. "We were hoping we were going to pack the place. Show the families our support. I think 30 days past, it's lost some of the momentum. But they're still in our hearts."
Biden spoke after a handful of local and national officials first took the stage, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. Mayor Andy Berke also spoke, outlining the city's initial horror and subsequent response to the shootings.
"Despite the darkness of the past 30 days, there is yet light," Berke said. "One chapter has ended, but we have begun a new chapter. The world has seen our character."
Lt. Cmdr. Tim White, the Navy officer who used his personal weapon to fire at Abdulazeez as the gunman ran into the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve on Amnicola Highway, described the day of the attack when he took the stage.
"Calmness, rustling leaves, screeching tires, gunfire — those were the sounds of July 16, 2015," he said. "Sounds that transformed a beautiful summer morning into a day filled with tragedy and tears. Sounds that few heard, but will never be forgotten."
At the very end of the emotional service, First Sgt. John Coyne took a final roll call. Standing before the crowd, he called the names of five service members who were there. Each man stood and shouted, "Present."
Then he called the names of the men who died.
"Gunnery Sgt. Sullivan," he said.
"Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan," he repeated.
"Gunnery Sgt. Thomas J. Sullivan."
He called each name three times. Wyatt. Holmquist. Smith. Wells.
"That name, it was a beating heart," said attendee Harriet Berman. "And that heart is no longer beating."
After each call, there was only silence.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at sbrad email@example.com or 423-757-6525 with tips or story ideas.