The top general of the U.S. Marine Corps visited Chattanooga on Friday for the city's first Armed Forces Day parade since five service members were killed in a July 16 terrorist attack last year.
Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, said he felt honored to attend the event and hoped his presence served as a "thank you" to the Chattanooga community.
"The events that took place last July 16 were tragic and needless, but I think out of that came a recognition that the relationship between this community and the military is as strong as ever," he said. "And as tragic as the loss of those Marines and that sailor were, the only thing that could be worse is if we didn't have communities like Chattanooga that are willing to support their military and provide great young men and women to serve."
Neller watched the parade from an elevated podium on Market Street. Under a breezy, blue sky, he saluted and waved as local students, veterans, patriotic groups and bands marched past.
People lined Market Street, lifting cell phones and craning to see. Some wore red, white and blue, others donned T-shirts that declared, "Nooga Strong." Kids sat on the curb, waving American flags and diving for candy thrown from floats.
A bus for Tennessee Vietnam veterans rolled through, and a toddler stared out the window, perched on a white-haired man's lap. The toddler bounced up and down to the peppy beat of the Marines' Hymn, blond hair flopping.
One of the longest-standing parades of its size in the nation, the event honors all five branches of the Armed Forces and focuses on one particular branch each year. This year, during the 67th parade and in the wake of the attacks, the Marines were honored.
Four Marines -- Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, Lance Cpl. Skip Wells and Staff Sgt. David Wyatt -- were killed during the attack on July 16. U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith was mortally wounded when a gunman opened fire on two military sites in the city.
Parade-goer Jarvon Green said his father was in the Army, so he tries to come out for the parade every year. This year's event is impossible to separate from the July attack, he added.
"It's a good thing," he said of the parade. "Those guys died doing what they love to do, and this is a great way to honor them."
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who invited Neller to the parade in his Third District, said he was proud of the way Chattanooga citizens came together after the attacks.
"Our community suffered a tremendous loss in July," he said. "We came together in a way we've never seen people come together in our lives."