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"The shootings two months ago gave me even more motivation," said Jessie, an 11th-grader at East Ridge High School. "Those guys are heroes."
Jessie was one of about 1,000 Hamilton County high school students to participate in the Chattanooga Unite: Tribute on the River parade Wednesday, an event honoring the lives of Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells and Navy Petty Officer Randall Smith, all gunned down on July 16 by local resident Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez.
"It felt really good to be here and be a part of this," Jessie said. "It's supporting what I love and the families of the fallen."
The tribute, a fundraiser for the victims' families, was sponsored by Friends of the Festival, which produces the annual Riverbend Festival. The parade down Broad Street was followed by a memorial service at Ross's Landing and a tribute concert on the Riverbend Festival's Coca-Cola stage.
Movie superstar Samuel L. Jackson, who was raised in Chattanooga, emceed the memorial at Ross's Landing. Jackson told the gathered crowd of thousands that "we are all one family here today and we grieve for all that was lost."
"They gave their lives for us," Jackson said. "Not in some foreign war or on foreign shores but for us here on this ground near this river."
He continued to say that the four Marines and one sailor died to protect this country, and spoke over cheers from the crowd when he said, "We were down, but now we stand."
Mayor Andy Berke thanked the families of the servicemen for making the trip to Chattanooga for the tribute.
"We lost these five heroes to violence and something that cannot be made sense of," Berke said solemnly. The tragic events of July 16 proved the city's true character, he said: "We became one city, Chattanooga strong."
Retired Adm. James Aloysius "Ace" Lyons Jr. said the men who died represent "the best of America" and that "this tragedy never had to happen."
Lyons placed blame for the July 16 shootings on President Barack Obama, calling him "anti-American."
"It's his policies that have contributed to the social unrest and hate that contributed to the deaths that happened here," Lyons said as many in the crowd cheered. He said the deaths of these five men should start a movement "to take back America."
The U.S. Navy's Blue Angels came next. The crowd sat in silence, watching the sky, as six jets darted overhead with white smoke billowing behind them. New Orleans entertainer Harry Connick Jr. then took the stage singing the "Navy Hymn."
The day's events culminated with a performance by country star Brantley Gilbert, who was joined onstage by fellow country artists Trace Adkins and Colt Ford and former Staind frontman Aaron Lewis.
Throughout the event, blue buckets were walked through the crowd and many people dropped in change or stuffed wads of bills. The money was collected through the National Compassion Fund and 100 percent of the proceeds will be given the families of the five victims.
The tribute brought together a mix of people from the region. Wandering the sidewalks were professionals in suits and also families wearing "Nooga Strong" T-shirts with jean shorts. Children waved American flags as couples walked through the crowd holding hands and moms pushed strollers.
During the parade, people lined Broad Street, sitting on the curb and setting up lawn chairs in the little shade found under the trees.
"Ooorah!" a group of men shouted from the bleachers when Marine veterans passed in the parade.
"Thank you," a young girl with pigtails said to members of the National Guard as they walked in formation.
"You're our next generation of heroes," a woman yelled at Howard School's JROTC unit.
Michael Smith, 64, said he is honored to have served in Vietnam, and he attended the parade to support everyone who is still serving.
"It's the American flag that keeps us all together," Smith said. "This Nooga Strong is for real. It's sad it took this tragedy to bring people together, but boy, is this parade beautiful."
Annie Kitchens, 61, stood at the memorial with her two grandchildren, who she took out of school at Clifton Hills Elementary and East Lake Middle for the event.
"I brought them because I want them to be a part of this and want them to always remember what happened," Kitchens said. "They needed to see all of this."
Kitchens, an Army veteran, said she was thankful her grandchildren's principals allowed students to leave school early to attend the event. She said she was encouraged by how seriously the local schools were taking the two-month anniversary of the shootings.
"Everyone in Chattanooga should always remember the lives and sacrifice of those men," Kitchens said as she placed her hand gently on her grandson's shoulder. "Those men were servants."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at email@example.com or 423-757-6592.