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'They were my son,' Joe Biden says of servicemen killed in Chattanooga attack

'They were my son,' Joe Biden says of servicemen killed in Chattanooga attack
Joe Biden pauses as he speaks at a memorial service to honor the sailor and four Marines killed in Chattanooga, Tenn., by a gunman the vice president called a "perverted jihadist." (Jason Davis / Getty Images)

Vice President Joe Biden mourned the five servicemen killed during a July shooting rampage in Chattanooga, Tenn., likening them to the son he lost nearly three months ago to cancer.

Speaking in intensely personal terms to the victims' families at a memorial service Saturday in Chattanooga, Biden said he didn't personally know any of the five men — Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith of the Navy, or Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist, Gunnery Sgt. Thomas J. Sullivan, Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells and Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt of the Marines.

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"But, oh, I knew them," he continued. "Confident, committed, determined, trustworthy, passionate and always, always loyal — I knew them. They were my son."

Biden praised their heroism as emblematic of the character of a "9/11 generation" he said was the finest in the nation's history and he spoke defiantly about the threat of extremism that the U.S. now faces.

Public eulogies have become a personal trademark for the vice president, who has drawn upon his own experience to empathize with others at times of grief.

His first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car accident just a month after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972. Beau and his brother, Hunter, were seriously injured in the crash, which nearly led Joe Biden to quit his political career just as it was beginning.

Now, as vice president, he's often been called on to represent the administration at ceremonies like this one, as he did last year at a service honoring two New York police officers assassinated in the line of duty.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post said Biden honored the slain New York police officers at a ceremony earlier this year. It was last year.

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But Saturday's memorial was the first such service for the vice president since the May 30 death of Beau Biden, the former Delaware attorney general who had served in Iraq with the Delaware National Guard.

Though Biden has resumed a full public schedule in recent weeks, he has said little publicly about the loss beyond informal remarks at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., after the June 17 massacre there that claimed nine black churchgoers, including the congregation's pastor.

Speaking Saturday to the victims' families, and in some ways of himself as well, Biden said the courage it took for them to attend the service would be an inspiration for others.

Addressing the crowd at McKenzie Arena at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Biden said that years from now, people they never knew but who shared similar loss will come to them and thank them — an experience Biden has faced as he has borne his grief in the public eye.

"Please know that he will always be with you in the deepest recesses of your heart, in your every thought," he told the families. "He'll be the voice you hear in your ear telling you it's OK. It'll be that feeling in your chest that just calms you down."

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The four Marines were killed the morning of July 16 when Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, 24, opened fire first on a military recruiting center and then a Navy-Marine training facility.

Abdulazeez was armed with multiple firearms and unleashed a barrage of more than a dozen rounds. His rampage was stopped when he was shot and killed by a Chattanooga police officer.

Smith, the lone member of the Navy, died two days later. The victims ranged in age from 21 to 40.

The attack is being investigated as an act of terrorism.

Three days before the incident, Abdulazeez appeared to praise jihad in a blog post. "Every one of them fought Jihad for the sake of the Allah," he wrote of Muhammad's most devoted disciples. "All of them towards the end of their lives were either a mayor of a town, governor of a state, or leader of an army at the front lines."

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, speaking before Biden at the memorial service, said the "meaning of their killing is yet unclear."

"What combination of disturbed mind, violent extremism and hateful ideology was at work, we don't know," he said. "Perhaps it will never be fully known, let alone fathomable by all who have decency and conscience."

Biden, however, called Abdulazeez a "perverted jihadist."

"Our national character is no match for the cowardice and the perversion that we face," he said, his voice booming after speaking earlier in hushed tones.

"These perverse ideologues, warped theocrats, they may be able to inspire a single lone wolf to commit a savage act. But they can never, never threaten who we are."

Twitter: @mikememoli

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