FORT HOOD, Texas (AP) -- Stepping for the first time into the role of national consoler, President Barack Obama is honoring the 13 people slain in a shooting rampage here by remembering what they left behind, offering personal stories about the lives they touched and the service they provided to their country.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama began an afternoon of consolation by meeting privately with family members of those killed last week on this enormous Army post.
The Obamas also were meeting with those wounded in the attack and released from the hospital, along with their families, before the president speaks at an outdoor memorial service here.
Thousands upon thousands of people, many of them soldiers dressed in camouflage, gathered to pay respects and hear the president. The shooting left 12 soldiers and 1 civilian dead, injured 29 others and left a nation stunned and searching for answers.
On a steamy Texas day, the crowd kept growing until the minutes before the service began. Below the stage was the somber tribute to the fallen -- 13 pairs of combat boots, each with an inverted rifle topped with a helmet. A picture of each person rested below the boots.
The president hoped to convey the idea that for those killed, "their memory lasts in the service and the dedication of the Armed Forces and by the people that they touched, both in the military and outside," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Later, the president and first lady planned to go to a military hospital to meet with those still recovering from injuries incurred during the attack.
The site of the ceremony is a field at the headquarters of the massive post, cordoned off with walls of steel shipping containers. Fort Hood is larger than many small towns, with about 53,000 troops, and it has substantial ties to the surrounding community.
Sheila Wormuth, whose husband is stationed at Fort Hood, brought her 3-year-old daughter to the memorial service to show their support. While her husband wasn't at the shooting site, she said, "what happens to my husband's brothers and sisters happens to us."
This is Obama's time to take on the healer role that can help shape a presidency at a time of national tragedy.
In an interview Monday with ABC News, Obama said he was going to Fort Hood to "personally express the incredible heartbreak that we all feel for -- for the loss of these young men and women."
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, governed during the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the most crippling natural disaster in U.S. history, a space shuttle explosion, a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, a tornado that wiped away a Kansas town, a bridge collapse in Minnesota, Midwestern flooding and California wildfires.
Each response affected his standing, for better or worse, in a country that expects its president to be empathetic and clearly in charge.
History is full of other examples. Bill Clinton helped rebuild his troubled presidency with the way he reacted to the Oklahoma City bombings.
In this case, Obama has sought his own balance.
He has promised a full investigation of the Fort Hood shootings but has said little about it as police search for a motive. He has praised religious diversity in the military, trying to offer calm as questions loom about whether the alleged shooter had ties to extremist Islamic ideology. And he has delayed a trip to Asia to attend the memorial service.
The mass killing shook the nation even more because it happened in a presumed haven of U.S. security. The suspect himself is a soldier, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan. Authorities say he fired off more than 100 rounds before a civilian police officer shot him. He survived and is in stable condition.
It wasn't even two weeks ago that Obama stood in the dark of night at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, honoring the remains of 18 troops killed in Afghanistan. Now he leads the mourning for 13 men and women who were working in the one place, as Obama put it, that "our soldiers ought to feel most safe."
Among those killed at Fort Hood were 21-year-old Pvt. Francheska Velez, who was pregnant and preparing to return home after a recent deployment in Iraq. And Spc. Jason Hunt, a 22-year-old who served in Iraq and was married two months ago. And Maj. Libardo Caraveo, 52, who was headed to the war zone in Afghanistan.
When Obama returns to Washington, the cost of war will still be with him.
His agenda Wednesday: another war council meeting on Afghanistan, and laying a Veterans Day wreath at Arlington National Cemetery.
Associated Press writers Angela K. Brown and Jeff Carlton at Fort Hood, Texas, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)