It was not a place they expected to be attacked. Soldiers tote their rifles with them everywhere when they are at war but generally not when they are in America. "As a matter of practice, we don't carry weapons here," said Army Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, the base commander of Fort Hood in Texas. "This is our home."
Fort Hood is home, indeed, to some of the most frequently deploying troops in the U.S. military. It is a place where there is a seemingly nonstop stream of soldiers and their families preparing for wrenching goodbyes and on other days tearful reunions as units rotate through their tours in some of the most violent places in the world. It is the largest military base in the world at 340 square miles, and its military community has suffered more casualties than any other American post since the wars began after the September 11 attacks.
Fort Hood suffered still more this week as a murderous rampage by a lone gunman left 13 dead and 30 wounded in a building where troops fill out paperwork and get last-minute checkups as they prepare to go to war. "It is difficult enough when we lose brave Americans in battles overseas," President Obama said in the immediate aftermath of the shootings. But it is "horrifying that they should come under fire at an Army base on U.S. soil." Obama repeated these sentiments in a statement from the Rose Garden this morning.
And Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff, along with Secretary of the Army John McHugh held a press conference at Fort Hood this afternoon. "I'll tell you candidly, this was a kick in the gut, not only for the Fort Hood community, but also for the entire Army," Casey said. "Unfortunately, over the past eight years, our Army has been no stranger to tragedy, but we are an army that draws strength from adversity."
It was doubly wrenching that the alleged gunman, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, is a soldier himself, one who had chosen a military career path as a psychiatrist tasked with helping his fellow troops cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. By his cousin's reckoning, he had been increasingly spooked by the deeply stressful events that his patients, most of whom were veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, had recounted to him day after day.
As the toll of multiple deployments and combat stress rises from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the rate of suicides within the military (there have been 10 among Fort Hood soldiers this year alone), the Pentagon has been working desperately to treat its battle-weary warriors.
Hasan was reportedly preparing for his own first deployment. But what prompted the murderous rampage remains unclear. By most accounts, Hasan did not receive stellar performance reviews throughout his military career. Thirty-nine is a rather ripe age to still be an Army major, particularly as an active-duty medical doctor who had joined the service out of college. Reports suggest that he had years ago hired a lawyer to help him leave the service early.
Other reports said that the shooter was a devout Muslim launching an ideological attack against a war he disagreed with. Around the Pentagon halls, the general consensus was that he was just plain crazy. According to a cousin, Nader Hasan, Nidal Hasan may have been affected by bullying, much as in the 1999 Columbine High School rampage. In the days after the September 11 attacks, he was ridiculed for his name and called a "camel jockey," according to the cousin, who took pains to emphasize that his family loves America. The Council on American-Islamic Relations quickly issued a press release calling the rampage at Fort Hood "cowardly."
As the wounded and hospitalized soldiers heal and a community begins to mourn yet more loss, plenty of questions remain, and the military vowed to continue to search for answers.
- See photos of the aftermath of the shootings.