Pastors, worshipers mourn Ft. Hood shooting victims

KILLEEN, Texas – Pastors and worshipers on the outskirts of Ft. Hood struggled to make sense of a week in which a soldier attacked fellow troops inside the fortified central Texas Army post, killing three and injuring 16 before taking his own life.

Military officials plan a memorial for Wednesday, a week after the shooting. On Sunday, the White House confirmed that the president and first lady would attend.

Tabernacle Baptist Church held a Ft. Hood memorial service of its own Sunday, where about 20 people gathered in front of an altar flanked by red, white and blue bunting. The Rev. Robert Sperbeck prayed for the victims, read their names aloud and took up a collection for survivors.

About 90% of his congregation is in the military — soldiers, spouses, families. Some contacted him during the week with questions. One woman called because she was struggling to help her son, a soldier who had known the shooter, Spc. Ivan Lopez, 34. Her son, like Lopez, was new to Ft. Hood and didn’t have much of a support system. 

It’s a familiar scenario for Sperbeck, who is trying to expand his outreach to soldiers, particularly single soldiers prone to drink, drugs and suicide. (Lopez was married and lived with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter.) 

“We live in dark times,” Sperbeck told the congregation. “It seems everywhere we turn there is violence; everywhere we turn there is heartbreak and grief and war.”

Among those in the small sanctuary on the edge of town was Kathy Abad. Her husband, a military police officer, or MP, was just leaving the base when the shooting started.

The shooter responsible for an earlier rampage in 2009, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, had faced a female MP, wounding her before he was shot and subdued. Hasan, who killed 13 and wounded more than 30, has been sentenced to death. 

On Wednesday, Abad reached her husband by phone and learned he was safe. As it turned out, Lopez had also faced a female MP, who fired once at him before he shot himself in the head.

In the days that followed, Abad listened to news reports about the three soldiers who were killed, including interviews with their relatives, and felt touched by the tragedy.

“It hits home, feeling the loss of mothers and children,” said Abad, 31. “Wounds have been reopened.”

Her husband went back to work after the shooting, reassuring her that security had increased. He saw drivers searched for weapons as they entered, and said soldiers’ mental health was being reassessed.

Theodis Westbrook, whose son was among the soldiers wounded in the attack, said that the military has done a good job so far of investigating the shooting, but that they need to do more to help troubled soldiers.

“The military needs to do a better job of dealing with these soldiers with mental illness. Otherwise, they’re going to continue to get hurt,” said Westbrook, 60, a retired teacher from Smithfield, Miss.

He worries about the psychological toll the attack has taken on his son. Military officials have asked his son not to comment, given the ongoing investigation, so Westbrook recounted what his son has told him:

Sgt. Jonathan Westbrook, 32, stared down the shooter before Lopez opened fire. "One of the things we’re not sure about in the near and long term is how my son deals with the emotional side of that,” the elder Westbrook said. 

The younger Westbrook was shot twice in the right side of his chest and once in his right arm. In the chaos that ensued, coworkers flipped chairs and tables to shield themselves from the gunfire.

The shot to Westbrook's arm was a surface wound. The ones to his chest passed through his pectoral muscle without lodging in his body or harming any of his vital organs. He didn’t need surgery, and left the hospital by week’s end.

Westbrook plans to stay in the Army, his father said. “This is not going to deter his career.”

Westbrook is starting to walk again, stiff and sore. He can’t drive or do any kind of physical labor, his father said. He still faces physical therapy as part of a lengthy recovery.

“Right now, he’s strong,” the elder Westbrook said, “But he mentioned to me, ‘You know, Dad, I’ve been shot -- I don’t know how I’m going to handle this down the road.' We don’t know whether he will have residual problems.”

The younger Westbrook lost a close friend in the shooting, Sgt. 1st Class Danny Ferguson, 39, of Mulberry, Fla. He will attend Wednesday's memorial in his friend's honor.


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