July 16, 2015, is a date few Chattanoogans will forget. The horror of that day still resonates in our memories and will for some time. That's the way it should be. Our country was attacked right here in my hometown, and four Marines and one Sailor lost their lives in the line of duty.
We know the names by heart: Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan. Sgt. Carson Holmquist. Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells. Staff Sgt. David Wyatt. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith.
These five men served us proudly and paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. They were young men, each with a bright future ahead. They leave behind families searching for answers, for comfort and for the strength to forge ahead without their loved one.
I know I speak for us all when I say to the families, "Anything — anything — we can do to help, we will."
That sentiment has echoed around Chattanooga for the past month. Immediately following the attack, we were overwhelmed with people who wanted to do something for the families. The patriotism in our area cannot be understated. While few of us had the pleasure of meeting these five heroes, the raw feeling of loss was evident on the faces and in the voices of citizens everywhere. While no one can truly understand what these families are going through, Chattanoogans know that part of our duty as Americans is to bear some of the pain alongside those who suffer and to offer any assistance we can.
That is the lesson I have learned from this tragedy: We will not be defined by our loss but by how we respond to it. And, by that measure, our city has exceeded the highest bar.
The test of our character began with our Chattanooga Police officers on that fateful day. When it would have been reasonable to delay, or to turn away, our officers rushed headlong toward danger. Even more importantly, our officers operated just as they had been trained, ensuring the incident was concluded as quickly as possible. They also looked out for each other, courageously aiding fellow officer, Dennis Pedigo, after he was injured.
At a CPD lineup the Saturday after the shooting, a Marine Sgt. Major addressed the officers before they went on patrol. He turned to me as he started and said, "Mayor, if I was headed into a firefight, I would want the Chattanooga Police Department to have my back. You should be proud." As I looked across the faces of the officers ready for their shift, I could see there was no greater compliment than to hear that from a Marine. All of us should be proud of how they bravely protected our community on July 16.
That same feeling applies to the city as a whole. International letters, emails from around the country, even our press visitors — no matter who has talked to me in the last month, they have remarked how well Chattanoogans have responded to this tragedy. We have volunteered our time; donated money; and prayed for the families of our Marines and sailor.
We showed the world a city that is compassionate, caring and patriotic.
Moments of crisis reveal much about character. While we could have seen a city of hatred, anger or bitterness, we witnessed the opposite. That says more to me than all the "Best Town Ever" awards we can ever receive.
Psalm 22 wonders what we should do when we feel alone and abandoned. In verse 24, it says, "For He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried upon him, he heard."
Over the last month, we have been unafraid to cry together, to pray together, to mourn together. The comfort and soothing we feel grows a little, day by day. We live in a new Chattanooga, one that will forever be bonded to the families of our fallen and one that has a new and even stronger connection to our Armed Forces. We also have seen more of who our neighbors are and it has been truly inspiring. As the Sgt. Major said, I am proud to be a Chattanoogan — and I have never been more certain that I live in the greatest mid-sized city in America.
Andy Berke is the mayor of Chattanooga.