KILLEEN, Texas — Security has tightened around Ft. Hood as soldiers and their families prepared to host President Obama and other dignitaries Wednesday for a memorial honoring those killed last week when one of their own opened fire on fellow troops.
Spc. Ivan Lopez, 34, killed three soldiers and wounded 16 others before shooting himself in the head. Lopez had recently learned that his request for a leave of absence following the death of his mother was rejected, infuriating him, officials told the Los Angeles Times. His family plans to bury him Saturday in his hometown of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, according to a statement released Tuesday.
Back at Ft. Hood, shipping containers were positioned to serve as barriers near the field where the memorial will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Added security checks at the gates have slowed traffic — a dry run, some soldiers said, for the president's arrival.
Numerous Texas officials are expected to attend, including the state's two U.S. senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn.
[Updated 7:10 a.m. PST, April 9: An army chaplain from Ft. Hood is expected to speak, followed by Ft. Hood-based Gen. Mark Milley, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh, President Obama, a staff sergeant singing "Amazing Grace," then a "roll call" in which each of the three soldiers who were killed have their names called three times, followed by a rifle volley and taps, just as they do at military funerals.
Then those involved in the memorial will approach the fallen soldiers' three sets of boots, rifles and helmets, called a "battlefield cross," to pay their respects.
Obama also is scheduled to meet with relatives of the three soldiers killed, as well as survivors, at Ft. Hood headquarters next to the field.]
It will be the first time Obama has visited Ft. Hood since he spoke at a memorial following the last mass shooting here, more than four years ago, when an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 13 and wounded more than 30.
Hasan was convicted and sentenced to death last year for the attack, which he called an effort to protect the Taliban. His trial also resulted in stepped-up security on the base, with special barriers erected around the courthouse.
Killeen Mayor Dan Corbin attended the memorial with Obama in November 2009. Back then, the president met privately with some of the victims and their families. Corbin, a Republican Army veteran, said he hopes Obama does the same this time, but that even if he doesn't, "his mere presence standing before the people of Killeen and Ft. Hood will send a signal that he cares, that the nation cares."
Military officials have not revealed the memorial program, and have not allowed shooting victims to grant interviews, leaving family members to speak on their behalf.
Sgt. Jonathan Westbrook, 32, who was shot three times, plans to attend the ceremony with his wife, according to his father, Theodis Westbrook.
Westbrook, 60, said he hoped the memorial "will cause people to have a greater resolve about doing something to address mental illness in the military."
"Let them go about defending their country without being afraid, looking over their shoulder," he said.
The Rev. Robert Sperbeck of Tabernacle Baptist Church here has been trying to reach out to soldiers in his congregation, which is about 90% military.
Sperbeck, 26, said he had no reservations about visiting the Army post, a sprawling installation with a daily population of 100,000.
"Over the past couple of years it has had its share of tragedy, but it is a safe place for our soldiers," Sperbeck said. "I pray that people will see that."
Melanie Juvier’s husband has been a soldier stationed at Ft. Hood for years, working in civil affairs. When he called last week to say he was on lockdown again, she flashed back to the shooting 4 1/2 years ago. She was so scared, she said, she wanted to move back to her native Germany.
"The day the shooting happened, I was going to pick everything up and go back. I mean — the second time!" Juvier, 25, said while grocery shopping Tuesday. "It was like a deja vu of what happened last time."
The stay-at-home mom is no stranger to fear. Her husband has deployed overseas five times during the last seven years. He returned in September, and is preparing to deploy again soon.
"It's different when he's deployed — you know it's dangerous. Work is supposed to be a safe place," Juvier said.
Despite her fears, the Army wife would never leave her husband's post.
"Home is where the Army sends us," she said.
On Tuesday, she was looking for a babysitter for her 4-year-old daughter so she could attend the memorial.