Memories of Ft. Hood rampage: 'He died at my knees'

Ft. Hood veteran on shooting rampage memories: 'It's something that rests on your shoulders all the time'

Almost six years after a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood, Texas, left 13 people dead and more than 30 others injured, clinical psychologist and retired Army Col. Kathy Platoni, who was there that day, is still advocating for victims and their families to receive full benefits and recognition from the military.

Platoni has called on the military to publicly discipline those who failed to warn that Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist, espoused radical Muslim beliefs and posed a threat to fellow soldiers.

Hasan, who shouted “God is great” in Arabic when he opened fire, was convicted of multiple counts of murder and attempted murder in 2013 and sentenced to death.

On Friday at the central Texas base, 42 of Hasan’s victims will receive a Purple Heart and two will get the Defense of Freedom medal: former Ft. Hood Police Sgt. Kimberly Munley and the late Army Reserve Capt. John Gaffaney, a former colleague of Platoni’s.

Platoni plans to attend the medal ceremony. Purple Heart recipients have been given the option of receiving the medals elsewhere in case it would be unsettling to return to Ft. Hood. What follows is a Q&A with Platoni.

You wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal last month calling on the military to compensate victims of the Ft. Hood shooting and to hold those who missed opportunities to stop Hasan beforehand accountable. Why write that now?

Plain and simple because it's what right looks like. The victims and their families are still paying the price, and we still face the ultimate betrayal by the country we swore to defend.

You wrote that, “Both an instructor and a colleague referred to Hasan as a 'ticking time bomb.' But his shocking conduct was ignored. ... Political correctness, to which the military continues to bow, led many to fear that reporting Hasan would result in career-ending charges of racial or religious discrimination."

Why do you suspect that superiors missed opportunities to stop Hasan and were not held accountable?

Several people who have witnessed the red flag behavior [of Hasan] have come forward. ... They have given me specifics about the details of his behavior and how his fellow students and colleagues tried to report this and were pretty much silenced.

Silenced by whom?

By superiors. There's two chains of command. There’s the military and the [medical] training chain of command, all of the instructors and medical trainers who were teaching him. Ignoring a problem of that magnitude doesn’t make it go away.

Were any of those people disciplined or investigated?

I really can’t answer that. I’m not privy to that information.

What else would you like the Army to do now?

To make sure that the wounded and the families are fully compensated with all the benefits that are due to them had their soldier or soldiers been killed in combat. Because Hasan turned Ft. Hood into a battlefield.

But hasn’t the military finally agreed to award them Purple Hearts?

That is a glorious accomplishment. They are making that right. The compensations are somewhat different from the full compensation that would have been awarded from being wounded or killed in action. Nobody to this day can explain what they are.

What I can understand so far through my research of the Purple Heart and the Freedom Medal awarded to the civilians who were wounded is they can be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, and upon retirement — and I believe that’s medical retirement, which many of these people have been due to their wounds — they will be entitled to full medical benefits.

What about retroactive benefits? What about the five years in which many of these people have been unable to work and have faced financial ruin and had to pay for medical benefits out of their own pockets?

What about you — how did the shooting affect you?

I live with the anguish and agony of survivor guilt. I still, [more than] five years after the fact, feel such a sense of powerlessness and helplessness. It’s heart-wrenching to live with the aftermath of a rampage like that. And I know so many of my soldiers are still struggling with that, particularly some who have some pretty severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Do you stay in touch with others who were there that day?

We’re scattered all over the United States, so we speak through email. But that’s just a handful of folks, so I don’t know how everyone is doing.

There have been two suicides, among them Staff Sgt. Joshua Berry from Cincinnati. I stay in contact with his father. Because he didn’t receive a bullet, there will be no Purple Heart for Sgt. Berry. He was injured trying to escape, suffered from pretty severe PTSD, had trouble getting care from the VA and ultimately took his life in February of 2013.

Do you have memories of that day?

They intrude all the time. It’s something that rests on your shoulders all the time. In very clear detail, as something that happened a few hours ago, I remember a civilian in the SRP [soldier readiness processing building] shouting: "They’re shooting! They’re shooting!"

Running as fast as I could toward the doors as multiple soldiers carried in the dying and wounded. Barricading the doors, looking desperately for medical supplies — just utter chaos — the long night ahead waiting to see which soldiers had not made it. All of it, it’s so clear. Dragging people into back rooms to hide them because we thought Hasan was coming into our building.

Capt. John Gaffaney, he died at my knees. He was the soldier with whom I spent the most time with [another captain] trying to render medical aid. His wounds were unsurvivable. Desperately talking to him saying, "John, you’re going to make it, hang on." And I remember this howl that came from deep inside me when he passed.

What do you hope comes of Friday’s medal ceremony?

I hope that it is a time for healing, for peace-making, for reintegrating with our fellow soldiers and further bonding with those people we all served with. And I hope on a national level, people recognize the magnitude of the sacrifices of people who wear the uniform, whatever the uniform.

Although I know this is not going to mean closure, I hope this will bring some closure to the families and the wounded — both the psychologically and the physically wounded. We have a long, long way to go.

Twitter: @mollyhf

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