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Survivors of Ft. Hood shootings testify

Just after lunch on Nov. 5, an Army psychiatrist inside the medical processing center at Ft. Hood did something that Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, the non-commissioned officer in charge at the center that day, said mystified him.

He said Maj. Nidal Hasan, the psychiatrist, suddenly stood up, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” — Arabic for “God is great” — and reached under his uniform top.

“I was wondering why he would say ‘Allahu Akhbar.’ ” Lunsford recalled Wednesday at a hearing for Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people and wounding 32 others that day.

As Lunsford struggled to make sense of what the psychiatrist was doing, he said, Hasan pulled out a handgun and opened fire on soldiers awaiting medical processing. A physician’s assistant, Michael Grant Cahill, tried to smack Hasan with a chair, but Hasan shot him, Lunsford said.

As Lunsford crouched behind a counter, Hasan spotted him. He and Hasan locked eyes. A red beam from the sighting laser on Hasan’s weapon flashed across Lunsford’s face.

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“I close my eyes and I get hit in the head,” Lunsford testified.

He went down.

“The left side of my face is to the floor,” Lunsford said. “Maj. Hasan, he’s still firing. Blood is pooling under my face.”

Lunsford lifted his head and saw Hasan approach, gun in hand.

“I think to myself: ‘Dead men don’t sweat. I’m too big to play dead.’ I lift my face up and look at the back door.”

As Lunsford testified, Hasan sat a few feet away in court, a pale, uniformed figure in a wheelchair, a blanket pulled tight around his shoulders and a knit cap warming his head. It was the first time Hasan has been confronted by the testimony of a victim of the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military base. He betrayed no emotion.

Lunsford was the first of 32 survivors expected to testify at the Article 32 hearing, which will determine whether Hasan is tried at a court-martial. The hearing is scheduled to last several weeks, past the one-year anniversary of the shootings.

The shock and terror of that day registered again Wednesday in the cramped courtroom, where relatives of the dead and wounded sat just behind Hasan, 40, an American-born Muslim. Eight witnesses, six of them soldiers who survived bullet wounds, described panic and confusion as some soldiers took cover and others tried to stop the gunman.

Several witnesses identified Hasan as the man who shot fleeing soldiers in the back and fired at wounded soldiers sprawled on the floor.

“The worst horror movie you could ever see,” said Spec. James Armstrong, who was shot in the leg and back. “Blood everywhere … bloody handprints smeared on walls where people tried to get up … bodies on the floor.”

Armstrong said the gunman shot a captain from a few feet away.

“He stood up and said, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ,’ ” Armstrong said of the victim. “He was shot in the side of the head and fell straight to the floor.”

Pfc. George Stratton, who was shot in the shoulder, said Hasan had “a piercing gaze in his eyes” as he took aim.

Spc. Amber Bahr, who was shot in the back, described “absolute chaos.”

“There were people trying to hide behind barriers and lifting up and throwing chairs” at Hasan, she said.

To soldiers like Sgt. Lunsford, a combat medic, it seemed incomprehensible not only that something close to combat was erupting on post, but that a fellow soldier was killing his own.

“He’s one of ours! He’s one of ours!” a female lieutenant screamed as the uniformed gunman fired at least 100 rounds from two handguns before he was wounded by police gunfire, according to testimony. Hasan was paralyzed from the chest down.

Michelle Harper, a civilian lab technician, described hiding under a desk with soldiers piled on top of her as Hasan methodically fired shot after shot at soldiers scrambling for cover inside the crowded center.

Harper said she managed to reach a 911 operator on her cellphone. In a 911 recording, played in court as Harper wept on the witness stand, Harper screamed, “Oh my God, everybody’s shot!”

On the tape, Harper could be heard sobbing as wounded soldiers moaned and the steady “pop, pop, pop” of gunfire echoed in the background.

“Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” Harper cried as the 911 operator pleaded with her to take a deep breath and calm down.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry, please!” Harper told the operator, begging for police help.

In court, Harper fought back tears as she described running toward a doorway to escape, only to have the gunman fire at a soldier next to her, hitting him three times.

“He fell to the ground.... I went back under the desk,” she testified.

Harper listened to the gunman’s slow footfalls as he made his way to where she and several soldiers were hiding.

“It was firing again,” she said of the gun.

She said she managed to get up and run out a door to a parking lot, followed by the gunman. On a walkway, Harper said, she watched him engage in a gun battle with a female police officer.

“I see Hasan shoot the officer and she falls to the ground,” Harper testified.

Still connected to the 911 operator, Harper ran to her car and drove away in a panic, crying and wailing as her car careened across a grassy area and over a ditch.

“They’re on their way, sweetheart,” the 911 operator assured her, referring to police and ambulance crews.

Harper was not shot, but said she suffered knee and back injuries from the soldiers who piled on top of her. She and other survivors have undergone medical treatment and psychiatric counseling, according to testimony.

Other witnesses described long bursts of gunfire, followed by a brief interlude as the gunman reloaded. Several said they thought it was a training exercise, but realized moments later that it was real when they saw fallen soldiers smeared with blood.

“Is this a drill?” Latoya Williams, a data entry clerk, recalled thinking. “It’s pretty elaborate if it is.”

Stratton said he saw Hasan reload his weapon and point it at him.

“He looked straight down at me and I looked at him,” Stratton said. “We made eye contact....I knew he was going to shoot me, and I turned on him and tried to get as low to the ground as I could.”

Stratton was shot through the left shoulder, the bullet exiting through his chest.

Spc. Matthew Cooke, who was at the center to prepare for deployment to Afghanistan, said he helped wounded soldiers get out of the building without realizing he had been shot himself. One bullet grazed his head. Two more struck him in the back, and another tore through his groin near his buttocks.

Lunsford said he lost most of the vision in his left eye and underwent surgery to rebuild the left side of his face. He said he still sees a psychiatrist and social worker, and is undergoing physical therapy.

“I’m a wounded warrior,” he said.

Lunsford didn’t realize that in the chaotic moments after he was first shot, he was hit four more times before he stumbled outside and was treated by a nurse. In court, he stood up —a towering man of 6 feet 9 — and pointed out his wounds: One round through his left eye and out his left ear. Two rounds in his upper body, just under his left armpit. A round to the right of his spine. A final round through his lower back and out his stomach.

From the witnesses table, Hasan stared intently at Lunsford, impassive in his wheelchair.

Another wounded soldier, Staff Sgt. Alvin Howard, now retired, described how the gunman stared directly at him and then opened fire.

“We looked eye to eye, and he just shot me,” Howard testified.

Howard was asked if he saw the gunman in the courtroom.

“He’s sitting right there,” Howard said, gesturing toward Hasan. “Eye to eye — I’ll never forget his face.”

david.zucchino@latimes.com


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