The military personnel who were killed or wounded in the 2009 Ft. Hood shooting will be awarded one of the military's highest honors, the Purple Heart, the Department of Defense announced Friday.
Thirteen people were killed and more than 30 injured in the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military base. Survivors and families of the dead had long fought to be eligible for the medal. But under previous law, the military categorized the attack as workplace violence, preventing Purple Heart designations. A federal law that took effect this year changed that criteria, clearing the way for the victims to receive medals.
"It is well past time for them to receive these awards, and I thank the secretary of the Army for reaching this determination," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who introduced the Purple Heart provision to the federal law. "We can never undo the events of that day, but we can properly honor the courageous patriots who protect our nation and remain forever grateful for them."
Previously, Purple Heart eligibility in such cases required evidence that showed an attacker was acting "at the direction" of a foreign terrorist organization. The new law allows the award to be given to victims of a perpetrator who "was in communication with the foreign terrorist organization before the attack" and was inspired or motivated by the foreign terrorist group, according to a statement from the secretary of the Army.
Ft. Hood victims will also be eligible for additional benefits for combat-wounded veterans, including burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a former Army psychiatrist, opened fire at the Texas military base in November 2009. Hasan was sentenced to death by a military jury in 2013 for the attack, which he called an attempt to protect the Taliban. He is imprisoned on military death row at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.
"The Purple Heart's strict eligibility criteria had prevented us from awarding it to victims of the horrific attack at Ft. Hood," Secretary of the Army John McHugh said in a statement. "Now that Congress has changed the criteria, we believe there is sufficient reason to allow these men and women to be awarded and recognized with either the Purple Heart, or in the case of civilians, the Defense of Freedom medal. It's an appropriate recognition of their service and sacrifice."
A lawyer for many of the wounded and the families of the dead said Friday's announcement was "obviously welcome," but "long, long overdue."
"This has been going on for five years," said Reed Rubinstein, representing 25 of the wounded service members, seven of the wounded civilians, and the estates of nine who were killed. "Really, this is a tribute to the doggedness and tenacity of the victims themselves. Many of them have been shot multiple times, many of them lost loved ones, but they would not be deterred. They would not stop telling the truth."
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford was shot seven times in the attack, testified repeatedly against Hasan and fought for years for Friday's victory, which he told The Times made him "ecstatic."
"Now we're finally getting the recognition we richly deserve," said Lunsford, 48, of Lillington, N.C. "It should never have taken this long."
Referring to an acronym for Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, Lunsford said the decision sends a "huge message ... especially with what ISIS is doing now, that we're not going to stand by and allow someone to terrorize us."
He said victims of the Ft. Hood attack are still waiting to hear whether benefits will be retroactive and when a date will be set for the Purple Heart ceremony.
Purple Heart recipients automatically qualify for special compensation upon retirement and can be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, according to the statement.
According to a statement to Congress from the Department of the Army, military departments will now review additional incidents since Sept. 11, 2001, for other Purple Heart recipients.