At Ft. Hood, Obama mourns shooting rampage victims

FT. HOOD, Texas — For the second time in five years, President Obama came to this sprawling Army post to console a community all too familiar with death, to offer a nation's condolences and to remind soldiers and their families of the healing power of love.

The president stood on a platform under bright sun and blue skies, reciting the names of the three soldiers who were killed in a shooting rampage last week. Before him stood their portraits, boots, rifles and helmets, what are known as "battlefield crosses."

Like the 576 Ft. Hood soldiers who died at war since 2003 and the 13 more killed in another mass shooting at the post, Obama said, "Their passing shakes our soul."

The president noted that the three men had deployed nine times total. Each had served in Iraq and one had returned from Afghanistan just last week.

He cited Scripture, saying: "With God's amazing grace we somehow bear what seems unbearable. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends."

It was love of country, Obama said, that inspired the three soldiers to join the greatest army the world has ever known. "It was love for their comrades, for all of you, that defined their last moments," he said.

Exactly a week earlier, Spc. Ivan Lopez embarked on an eight-minute rampage in which he fired more than 35 rounds before he was confronted by a military police officer and shot himself in the head.

Army investigators have said his motive remains a mystery. But officials told The Times that Lopez recently learned that his request for a leave of absence following the death of his mother had been rejected, infuriating him.

Four of the 16 injured were still hospitalized Wednesday, all in stable condition. The rest have returned to duty.

Before the ceremony, the president met privately with the wounded, first responders and relatives of the dead. Those families were seated up front at the memorial, some dressed in black with white ribbons pinned to their chests.

Among the first to arrive was Sgt. Jonathan Westbrook, 32, of McComb, Miss., who was shot three times in the attack but appeared to have recovered, waving to fellow soldiers.

Also in the crowd of several thousand was Capt. Paul Schunk Jr., a combat medic assigned to the post's hospital who helped bring in the wounded for treatment. According to a relative, he had just returned from treating victims of the deadly Washington landslide.

After the president spoke, a soldier announced the name of each of the fallen three times, a traditional roll call: Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Michael Ferguson, 39, of Mulberry, Fla.; Sgt. Timothy Wayne Owens, 37, of Effingham, Ill.; and Staff Sgt. Carlos Alberto Lazaney-Rodriguez, 38, of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. His voice echoed across the field as the assembled bowed their heads.

Then came three rifle volleys and taps.

Women wept, clutching tissues to their faces. Hundreds of soldiers in the surrounding field saluted. Then the president and victims' relatives filed up to the framed portraits to pay their respects.

The last time Obama visited was after the 2009 attack by Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the attack, which he called an effort to protect the Taliban.

The recent violence can't help but "open the wounds of five years ago," said Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, U.S. Army chief of staff. Soldiers prepare themselves for battle overseas, but to be gunned down at home by one of their comrades, he said, was "heartbreaking and inexplicable."

At the memorial in 2009, the president stood on the same field in front of 13 battlefield crosses and promised, as he did Wednesday, that the dead would not be forgotten.

Here at one of America's largest Army posts, that goes without saying. Remembering the dead is a way of life.

Ft. Hood and the surrounding city of Killeen are uniformly military communities that celebrate and commemorate their war dead. Killeen's mayor, a Vietnam veteran, likes to say that his city is 90% military, and the other 10% is related to them.

Locals are accustomed to funeral processions that wend their way through town to the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery. Passing drivers stop their cars, climb out and salute.

Students at Robert M. Shoemaker High School, named after a retired four-star general who still lives here, know that during any given year they or someone they know will probably be notified that a soldier — their soldier — has died.

Every time an active-duty soldier here dies, no matter the cause, the post's press office issues a statement. There are homicides, natural deaths, accidents and suicides. But the title of the statement is always the same: "Death of a Fort Hood soldier."

During the last five years, 71 Ft. Hood soldiers have committed suicide, two so far this year.

Local soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan and Iraq are immortalized in a memorial at the cemetery, black marble slabs etched with their names and faces.

"You always hope it's the last time, every time there's another soldier's name etched on those marble slates," said Killeen Mayor Dan Corbin, 66, who attended Wednesday's memorial, noting that soldiers "don't die as frequently now as they did in past years. In the past, we've had days where eight people from one unit were killed in battle."

He wishes more people paid attention to fallen soldiers, troubled veterans and their families, not just after mass shootings.

"There's been little attention paid to the soldiers and the families of the soldiers who died throughout the war by the hundreds," Corbin said, "The whole nation needs to be concerned about all of these soldiers all of the time."

Americans care about soldiers when they see them, he said. If only we could see them heading off to work and war every day like people here do, Corbin said.

"This tragedy puts it right in front of us," he said.

Five local soldiers died in Afghanistan last year, Corbin said. About a month from now, after the news vans leave Killeen and the mass shooting disappears from headlines, another black slab will be unveiled at the cemetery, etched with their names and faces.

And a ceremony will be held, as it always is, on Memorial Day.

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