Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivered a message of defiance mixed with mournful remembrance Tuesday on the 17th anniversary of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In its response to the attacks, the U.S. has continued to show the world that "Americans do not scare," he said at the annual ceremony at the Pentagon, where 184 lives were lost when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building at 530 mph.
Mattis was joined at the somber ceremony honoring those lost, including 125 civilian employees and military personnel killed inside the Pentagon and 59 passengers and crew aboard the Boeing 757, by Vice President Mike Pence, who echoed him in stressing U.S. resilience.
Pence said his first duty in coming to the Pentagon was to "pay a debt of honor and remembrance" to the 184 victims, aged 3 to 71, who died at the Defense Department's headquarters.
"We must learn the lessons of 9/11 and remain ever vigilant in the defense of our nation and our people," he added.
He said the 19 terrorists who hijacked four aircraft and killed a total of 2,977 in New York, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon "hoped to break our spirit, and they failed. The American people showed on that day and every day since, we will not be intimidated. Our spirit cannot be broken."
Mattis told an audience that included families of the victims that "we commit ourselves to remembering and honoring the lives that might have been."
"They endowed us forever with an enduring sense of purpose," he said, and "in their passing they empowered us" to sacrifice and commitment in the generational fight against "hatred disguised in false religious garb."
Since 9/11, the men and women of the military have "nailed our colors to the mast, giving their last full measure of devotion, declaring proudly that Americans do not scare," he continued.
Mattis delivered a similar message last year at the Pentagon's 9/11 ceremony, where President Donald Trump spoke on his first year in office. On Tuesday, Trump spoke in Shanksville, where 40 passengers and crew died when United Airlines Flight 93 crashed into a field after passengers fought back against the hijackers.
Earlier at the Pentagon, Pence and his wife Karen laid a wreath in the 1.93-acre park on the Pentagon grounds where memorial benches for the 184 victims are arranged according to their year of birth -- from 1930 to 1998.
According to the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial, the 184 "were men, women, and children. They were mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons."
"They came from all walks of life: administrative assistants, doctors, educators, flight crew members, military leaders, scientists, and students. They came from towns and cities, large and small, across the United States and around the world. The youngest was only three years old; the oldest, 71," it says.
In his remarks later, Pence recalled that he was a new Republican member of the House from Indiana on Sept. 11, 2001, when the plane hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. "I'll never forget that moment, standing in my office, when I heard a staffer shout 'the Pentagon's been hit.'
"When I made my way out the building, and walked onto the Capitol grounds, I'll never forget the sight of seeing columns of smoke billowing out of the Pentagon, literally darkening half of that crystal clear blue sky," he said.
Following 9/11, the nation resolved to “prevent the evil of radical Islamic terrorism from ever reaching our shores again,” Pence said, citing those who joined the military after the terror attacks as a prime example.
They "turned a tragedy into a triumph of freedom," he said in honoring the "nearly 7,000 who've given their lives on the fields of battle since 9/11."
"Under our administration, I'm proud to say we're making the strongest military in the world stronger still," Pence said, adding that Trump recently signed a bill providing for "the largest increase in our national defense in a generation," giving the military the "resources and rules of engagement to fight and win" on any front.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.