Fort Hood, community mourn shooting victims

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Associated Press

Posted on November 7, 2009 at 5:10 AM

FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) — A chaplain exhorted hundreds of mourners gathered at a candlelight vigil to not give up hope as Fort Hood and its surrounding community looked to each other for comfort after an Army psychiatrist allegedly went on a deadly shooting spree at the military base.

A grief counseling center was set up Friday at the Killeen Community Center to help residents struggling to make sense of one of the worst mass shootings ever on a base in the United States. At least 13 people died and more than two dozen were wounded in the attack a day earlier.

The alleged gunman, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was wounded and taken into custody after a gunfire exchange with two civilian police officers. At least 13 people died and more than two dozen were wounded.

Like other military installations nationwide, the bonds between Fort Hood and the town at its doorstep are tight. Town merchants depend on the soldiers who shop at their stores and eat at their restaurants. Locals show their appreciation and support for the troops, hoisting giant yellow ribbons and raising money for charities benefiting Fort Hood soldiers stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"Most of our clientele are soldiers, so this affects everyone in the community," said James Carpenter, 34, a tattoo artist at Zombie Ink and a former soldier who had been stationed at Fort Hood before he left the Army in 2003. "Everyone is asking why and saying, 'I can't believe he did that.'"

Witnesses said Hasan stood on a desk and began firing after walking into the Soldier Readiness Processing Center, where troops who are about to be deployed or who are returning undergo medical screening. Those who weren't hit by direct fire were struck by rounds ricocheting off the desks and tile floor.

Officials say the gunman was stopped after two civilian police officers arrived on the scene and began a firefight with Hasan, who was hit four times including at least once in the torso.

Most of the shooting survivors remained hospitalized, many in intensive care. Hasan was transferred Friday to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, about 150 miles southwest of Fort Hood. Army officials late Friday gave no indication of his condition except to say he was "not able to converse."

Some who knew Hasan said he may have been struggling with a pending deployment to Afghanistan and faced pressure in his work with distressed soldiers, although authorities still did not have a motive.

Fort Hood spokesman Col. John Rossi said that the assailant fired more than 100 rounds and that his weapons were not military arms, but "privately owned weapons ... purchased locally."

Shock over the shootings persisted into Friday night, when hundreds attended a candlelight vigil in the first formal community gathering since the killings. Earlier in the day, a moment of silence was held at U.S. military installations as a show of respect for the victims, and 13 flag-draped coffins departed from Fort Hood for Dover Air Force Base and the military's mortuary based in Delaware.

At the vigil, husbands wrapped their arms around their wives, babies cried and old men in wheelchairs bowed their heads during the service at a post stadium.

The Army's chief chaplain, Douglas Carver, offered prayers and encouragement to those in attendance.

"Remember to keep breathing. ... Keep going," Carver told the crowd of several hundred, many dressed in fatigues and black berets.

The crowd sang "God Bless America" and "Amazing Grace" in the bleachers under the stadium lights. After about 20 minutes, the stadium went dark, the only light from camera flashes and surrounding buildings in the distance as candles were passed around the bleachers.

It was a tough night for Maj. Dan Walker, 34, who returned from Kuwait in June, his third deployment overseas.

"I've been to a lot of these in my career," Walker said as he walked through the dark parking lot after the service. "They definitely don't get any easier, and this one is probably one of the toughest ones just because it came so close to home.

"When you go to war, you expect it and understand it," he added. "But this is different. When you come home, you try to relax and live as normal a life as possible. You don't expect this."

Among the victims were Francheska Velez, 21, of Chicago, who was pregnant and preparing to return home. Family members said Velez had recently returned from deployment in Iraq and had sought a lifelong career in the Army.

Pfc. Michael Pearson, 21, of the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, Ill., quit what he figured was a dead-end furniture company job to join the military about a year ago. Pearson's mother, Sheryll Pearson, said he joined the military because he was eager to serve his country and broaden his horizons.

Sgt. Amy Krueger, 29, of Kiel, Wis., joined the Army after the 2001 terrorist attacks and had vowed to take on Osama bin Laden, her mother, Jeri Krueger said. Amy Krueger arrived at Fort Hood on Tuesday and was scheduled to be sent to Afghanistan in December, her mother told the Herald Times Reporter of Manitowoc.

Michael Grant Cahill, a 62-year-old physician assistant, suffered a heart attack two weeks ago and returned to work at the base as a civilian employee after taking just one week off for recovery, said his daughter Keely Vanacker.

Cahill, of Cameron, Texas, helped treat soldiers returning from tours of duty or preparing for deployment. Often, Vanacker said, Cahill would walk young soldiers where they needed to go, just to make sure they got the right treatment.

"He loved his patients, and his patients loved him," said Vanacker, 33, the oldest of Cahill's three adult children. "He just felt his job was important."

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Associated Press writers Caryn Rousseau in Bolingbrook, Ill., Robert Imrie in Wausau, Wis., Monica Rohr in Houston and Sophia Tareen, Michael Tarm and Amy Shafer in Chicago contributed to this report.

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