After years of lobbying, victims of the 2009 shooting rampage at Ft. Hood were awarded Purple Hearts during a somber ceremony at the central Texas military post Friday morning.
For some who returned for the first time since the attack, just making it to the post was a victory.
“Some days it’s a struggle to come on post when those emotions start flooding back on me,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Jackson, who lives in nearby Killeen.
When the time came to have the medal pinned to his chest, Jackson had mixed emotions. “There were days I was wondering when it was ever going to happen. It’s hard not to be bitter,” he said.
The delayed recognition and requisite benefits had rankled the wounded and relatives of the 13 who were killed when Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, yelling “God is great!” in Arabic, opened fire at a processing center for military personnel preparing to deploy overseas. Hasan, 44, a military psychiatrist, was later charged with murder, court-martialed, convicted and sentenced to death. He remains on military death row at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan.
In addition to those killed in the attack, 24 soldiers or veterans were awarded Purple Hearts here Friday. Four more could not, or would not, return and chose to have the medals awarded off post.
Two civilians received Defense of Freedom medals: one of the dead, physician assistant Michael Cahill, and one of the living, Ft. Hood police Officer Kimberly Munley, who was wounded in the attack.
At the start of the ceremony, soldiers fired cannons 13 times to honor those who were killed in the attack and were awarded posthumous medals. Those in uniform and veterans’ caps saluted. Women clutched babies and dabbed at their eyes.
“Their composure and fearlessness prevailed,” Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, Ft. Hood’s commander, told the crowd.
“Their bravery has been matched only by their resilience,” MacFarland said, noting that 10 survivors are still in the military and that the group as a whole is “a testament to the strength and grit of the American soldier.”
He addressed them in front of his headquarters, a boxy building with a sign advertising the home of the Phantom Warriors. It was the same place President Obama spoke after the 2009 shooting and, a year ago this month, after another deadly shooting at the post that killed four people, including the shooter, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, 34.
The audience of about 1,000 included Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. They faced poster-sized photographs of the dead, set on stands in the grass. The fallen were old and young, men and women, one of them pregnant, which has led some to list the death toll at 14.
Under gray clouds that threatened rain, the procession of survivors began. Relatives of the dead came next, filing past the photographs of their loved ones to take their place in line before the crowd. The young widows, widowers and parents were a reminder of how green some of the fallen soldiers had been. The youngest, whose parents’ received his medals Friday, was Pvt. Aaron Nemelka, 19.
As MacFarland and Army Secretary John McHugh made their way down the lines, pinning medals, presenting framed awards and shaking hands, the crowd fell so silent that the only sound was flags flapping in the chill wind.
The military initially categorized the attack as workplace violence, disqualifying victims from receiving the combat medals. But after they and their families sued and lobbied the government, Congress passed a law that took effect this year broadening the criteria to qualify for the medal.
But it was still not clear this week what benefits Ft. Hood medal recipients and their families are now guaranteed. Members of Texas’ congressional delegation said that they collectively spoke with McHugh on Thursday and that he vowed to expedite survivors’ benefits such as medical expenses and back pay.
“It should be weeks or even days, and it should not require any additional legislation,” Cruz said. “It’s incumbent on the Pentagon now to recognize this and follow through.”
The daughter of the lone civilian killed in the attack agreed.
“We’re not done. With these medals, with all of this comes a great weight. Because I’m not doing enough is how I feel every day,” said Kerry Cahill, adding that when it comes to helping soldiers and veterans, “we’re not done as a nation, as a government, as a military unit, as a people.”
Ret. Army Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford was shot seven times in the attack. Lunsford testified against Hasan at the court-martial, and joined others in suing the government for withholding honors and benefits.
Appearing in uniform alongside lawmakers after Friday’s ceremony, Lunsford said the country needs to focus on supporting soldiers, reducing the rate of military suicides and awarding survivors full benefits.
Turning to lawmakers, he said, “You went into the fight with us, and the fight continues.”
Lunsford traveled to the ceremony from his home in Lillington, N.C. He wore his dress uniform, the one he wore to testify against Hasan, who in protest had refused to wear his uniform.
The day before the ceremony, Lunsford said, he returned to the site of the shooting. This was where he had heard Hasan shout in Arabic, “God is great!,” before opening fire. Lunsford, an imposing figure at 6 feet 9, fled after being wounded, but fell outside in the grass and was shot again as he tried to play dead.
Like other Phantom Warriors, Lunsford is haunted by the past. Returning moved him.
“Today in this overcast weather, the 14 we have lost, they are here. They are here,” he said.