NASHVILLE — President Barack Obama on Tuesday honored four Marines and a Navy petty officer killed in Chattanooga last week during a gunman's rampage, telling the nation, "God bless these American heroes."
Flying the flag at half-staff
According the U.S. Flag Code, the president will order the flag flown at half-staff "upon the death of principal figures of the United States government and the governor of a state, territory or possession."
After the deaths of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag may be flown at half-staff at the president's discretion.
Presidents also have ordered the flag to be flown at half-staff on the death of leading citizens, not covered by law, as a mark of official tribute to their service to the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is among those who have been so honored.
President Barack Obama ordered the flags over the White House, public and military buildings and embassies lowered to half-staff on Tuesday.
The flag also was lowered to half-staff following shootings at Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Sandy Hook Elementary and Aurora, Colo.
The provisions of the Flag Code on flying the flag at half-staff are a guide only.
In his televised speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Pittsburgh, Pa., the president individually described the lives of the Marines — Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt and Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells — and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith.
"We honor our five service members killed so senselessly in Chattanooga," Obama said. "We are grateful to the courageous police who stopped the rampage and saved lives. And we draw strength from yet another American community that has come together with an unmistakable message to those who would try to do us harm: We will not give in to fear. You cannot divide Americans. You can never change our way of life or the values of freedom and diversity that make us Americans."
He later issued an executive order to lower U.S. flags to half-staff, days after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, ordered flags at the U.S. Capitol lowered. The fact that Obama hadn't was increasingly drawing criticism.
Tennessee's U.S. senators and congressmen on Tuesday also paid tribute to the dead, as did local leaders.
"Our nation mourns, our community mourns, as we have lost five of our greatest," U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor, said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Corker said he believes "that the thing that people all over the country and the world have heard about 'Chattanooga Strong' is true, and I think our community will be even stronger because of what has happened.
"But," he added, "our nation must understand where we are in the world and that these types of activities possibly, possibly will continue." Corker said Pentagon officials told him Tuesday "they're looking at what needs to be done to ensure that this doesn't happen again."
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander spoke after Corker.
"The word is heartbroken," he said. "Heartbroken for the lives that were lost. Heartbroken for the families who are remaining. Heartbroken for the community of Chattanooga and Senator Corker."
He memorialized the "young men whose lives were filled with happiness, young men who had the expectation of a long life for themselves, young men who were filled with duty and with service."
Tuesday evening, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann of Chattanooga and other Tennessee Congress members led House colleagues in a moment of silence.
In Washington, Tennessee's House delegation has led the way with legislation that would require the Pentagon to allow qualified service members in U.S.-based military recruiting centers and other installations to carry military-issue firearms. U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., is a primary sponsor and U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., said Tuesday he has signed on as well.
Earlier Tuesday, Fleischmann visited the site of the shooting on Lee Highway to meet with U.S. Army recruiters as they returned to work. Army Lt. Col. Tony Parilli thanked Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher and Mayor Andy Berke for their roles in the response to the shooting, and presented each with a coin.
"We are honored to stand shoulder to shoulder with Chattanooga," Parilli said.
Berke spoke briefly at the ceremony Tuesday morning and to the City Council meeting Tuesday night.
"We owe these five heroes and their families a deep debt of gratitude," Berke said.
The mayor also praised police officers.
"We should be comforted by the fact that the fearlessness men and women at the Chattanooga Police Department saved the lives of so much more," Berke said.
Calling the roll
To VFW members, Obama described the honored dead, beginning with Sullivan, an avid sports fan.
"In battle, said a comrade, Sully 'was just everything that a Marine should be,'" Obama said, citing Sullivan's two tours in Iraq, where he earned a Combat Action Ribbon and "for his wounds, two Purple Hearts."
"When he was warned that a gunman was there in Chattanooga, he ran in — so that others could live," the president said. "Today we echo the words of his community: Gunnery Sgt. Thomas J. Sullivan 'was our hero and he will never be forgotten.' Thank you for protecting us."
Obama called Wells a "true servant leader — devoted to God and to his friends, quick to lend a hand or put you on his prayer list." Just 21 and only a year out of boot camp, the president said "as Americans, we are forever grateful that Lance Corporal Squire K. Wells was on our team."
Obama said that while an Eagle Scout Wyatt "would race up a mountain to be the first on top," he was determined to do his part for our country, found his calling in the Marines. He led with courage, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and with compassion — as a mentor to comrades with post-traumatic stress.
He called Holmquist, who also served in Afghanistan, the "embodiment of the spirit of Grantsburg, Wisc. — population, 1,300. Loved country music, loved to fish, to hunt, to play football. And he loved the Marines — showing up at his old high school in his dress blues."
Obama said Smith was known in his Ohio hometown "as the high school baseball star with the fierce pitch. He was a fun and outgoing guy — the guy, they said, you just wanted to be around. His buddies in the Navy knew it — he had just re-enlisted — and his family knew it, too."
The president then told the veterans that "our nation endures because citizens like you put on the uniform and serve to keep us free."
"We endure because your families serve and stay strong on the home front. We endure because the freedoms and values you protected are now defended by a new generation — Americans just like our five patriots who gave their lives in Chattanooga. As a grateful nation, we must stand up for them and honor them, now and forever."
Staff writers Shelly Bradbury and Louie Brogdon contributed to this report.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.