Hundreds of people gathered at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Friday night to raise money in support of wounded members of the armed services at the Honoring the Sacrifice Foundation's fifth annual American Heroes Dinner.
United States Army Sgt. Andrew Smith created the foundation with his family in 2013, a year after Smith was severely injured by an improvised explosive device during a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Smith lost both of his legs and suffered abdominal injuries resulting in over 40 surgeries, but in the last five years, his foundation has supported others with similar stories.
The annual dinner is an opportunity for community members to contribute to the cause, and on Friday night attendees had the opportunity to hear from keynote speaker Robert J. O'Neill, a decorated veteran who served as a team leader with SEAL Team Six, which killed Osama Bin Laden.
He spoke about his training, the camaraderie he experienced in his service and some of the missions in which he participated. A SEAL instructor told him something at the beginning of their training that he carried with him: "Never quit."
"He said, 'When you feel like quitting, and you will, don't quit now. That's emotion. Quit tomorrow,'" O'Neill said. "Never quit, and you'll be fine."
O'Neill has deployed more than a dozen times, holding combat leadership roles in more than 400 combat missions in four different theaters of war, and he said the most difficult part of his service was every time he had to leave his family.
"The hardest part is not getting shot at. It's not being in a gunfight, it's kissing your kid goodbye," he said. "There's a big difference between kissing your kid goodnight and kissing her goodbye."
He said the hardest goodbye was before the mission to take out Osama Bin Laden in 2011, but after he shot Bin Laden and another team of SEALS came to pick them up, one stepped forward and said, "On behalf of my family, thank you."
Those in attendance on Friday night shared similar feelings and pledged thousands to the foundation immediately after O'Neill's comments. Afterwards, Sam Cummings said he made a donation and was proud to do so.
"Many of the young men here tonight, and many more who weren't here, made sacrifices that none of us will ever understand or experience ourselves," he said. "It's our responsibility to show them the support they need after they gave all of us so much.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.