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Fort Hood Community Struggles to Make Sense of Tragedy

November 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Tom Bearden reports from Killeen, Texas, on how the Fort Hood community is reacting to last week's shooting at the U.S. Army base that killed 13 people and injured dozens more.

JIM LEHRER: And now how the Fort Hood community is coping.

“NewsHour” correspondent Tom Bearden was in Texas over the weekend, and he filed this story.

TOM BEARDEN: On Sunday, in churches all over this area, people mourned the tragedy at Fort Hood. Local ministers in Killeen, the community that surrounds Fort Hood’s main gate, organized a joint memorial service at the First Baptist Church last night.

The governor was there. So was State Representative Jimmie Don Aycock.

STATE REP. JIMMIE DON AYCOCK, R-Texas: In Killeen, our unique purpose and focus is to take care of our soldiers. There have been other acts of violence in our community that we don’t understand, but this one was different, because the man with the pistol wore that uniform.

TOM BEARDEN: More than a few of the soldiers who spend time at Fort Hood come back to this area and retire once their military careers are over.

One of them got elected mayor of the town of Killeen. Former Sergeant Tim Hancock says people here were shocked by the shootings. But he adds, this town has had a lot of experience dealing with tragedy.

TIMOTHY HANCOCK, mayor, Killeen, Texas: Every week or so, we get returning, and we have memorials for soldiers that were killed in war. So, that — you know, we’re cognizant of it. We know what it is like.

TOM BEARDEN: The mayor says, like everybody else, he wants to know why Major Hasan attacked the troops he was supposed to care for.

TIMOTHY HANCOCK: I’m glad that he’s still alive, and I’m glad I think that he’s alive, because I think that this will give us an opportunity to find out — a better chance of finding out why these things happen.

TOM BEARDEN: Just down the block from city hall, there’s a coffee shop called Under the Hood. A lot of troubled soldiers come here, and it’s also frequented by peace activists.

One of the shop’s frequent customers, PFC Michael Kern, has his own idea about why Hasan started shooting. Currently transitioning out of the Army on a medical discharge, he had a nodding acquaintance with Major Hasan, who was a psychologist in the unit where he’s being treated.

PFC. MICHAEL KERN, U.S. Army: Seemed like a total normal guy to me. I mean, even some of the patients that I have talked to that were his patients didn’t seem any — you know, couldn’t really tell anything about him. You know, he just seemed like a normal guy.

TOM BEARDEN: Kern thinks Hasan’s own mental health was likely affected by the stress of years of treating deeply disturbed soldiers.

PFC. MICHAEL KERN: OK, he’s there to help the soldiers. Who is going to — you know, we’re giving him so much. We’re telling him so many war stories and, you know, telling him all the bad things that we have done and all the bad things that we have been through. Who’s going to help him when he’s having the same problems thinking about all the things that’s going on in Iraq?

If I’m going to sit here and I’m going to tell you, look, I murdered this person, you know, I got blown up, I lost — my friend died in my arms, and then I’m going to tell you you’re going to go to Afghanistan, you’re going to have some hesitant thoughts, too.

Charles Luther has been counseling Kern on his effort to leave the service. He’s a former Army sergeant who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He spends most of his free time advocating for better mental health care for disturbed soldiers.

He thinks because the shooter was a Muslim, other Muslim soldiers will face a backlash from already troubled non-Muslims within the ranks.

Backlash for Muslim soldiers

Charles Luther
Former U.S. Army srgeant
I can only imagine how these soldiers are going to feel about Muslims on the street.

CHARLES LUTHER, former U.S. Army srgeant: I spoke with one that's a good friend of mine, and he said, you know, he's kind of terrified now, because we have soldiers that have PTSD that do not get help. And now we have a Muslim doctor that allegedly, you know, committed murder to the soldiers themselves. I can only imagine how these soldiers are going to feel about Muslims on the street.

TOM BEARDEN: Inside the army itself, is harassment of Muslims common?

CHARLES LUTHER: Oh, it is. It is.

TOM BEARDEN: Army chaplains are reaching out to the off-post Muslim community, trying to establish lines of communication.

MAN: We are inviting you to participate in the healing process.

MAN: Sure.

TOM BEARDEN: They invited members of the Islamic Association of Greater Killeen to participate in a memorial service scheduled for tomorrow.

Although some members have already said they're worried about retaliation in the civilian community, Imam Syed Ahmed Ali says the mosque has received only one threatening phone call. He repeatedly asked reporters to convey his message that Islam does not condone acts like the Fort Hood shootings.

Major Hasan reportedly told others he did not want to be deployed to the Middle East because, among other things, his faith did not allow him to fight other Muslims. I asked the imam about that.

Is there anything in Islam that tells soldiers that they should not fight against other Muslims?

IMAM SYED AHMED ALI, Islamic Community of Greater Killeen: No. This is his duty, you know? This is his duty. And this is not -- or if he don't want to fight with Muslims, don't join in the Army.

TOM BEARDEN: As the investigation continues, Fort Hood's Army chaplains, like Lieutenant Colonel Les Maloney, are also moving to comfort the survivors and the larger Army community.

He says base chaplains are beginning to implement meetings called critical incident stress management sessions.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL LES MALONEY, chaplain, U.S. Army: They can cry in there. It's an open -- and there will be other people who are crying in there. And, so, they feel comfortable doing that, letting their guard down.

They can talk about their fears. They can talk about any physical effects, like, I'm not sleeping since that happened, I haven't eaten in two days, things like that. They can just kind of open up, and it's therapeutic.

TOM BEARDEN: Despite the tragedy, the reality of Army life in 2009 continues. Each of these American flags in Iraq at the entrance to Killeen's Memorial Baptist Church represents a member of the congregation who is deployed overseas.

At a service on Sunday morning dedicated to the Fort Hood victims, the congregation added one more name to that list. Bryce Leifer is leaving soon. He and his wife, Valerie were escorted to the front of the church, and a flag for him was added to their collection.

JIM LEHRER: There's more on the reaction to the shooting from our PBS colleagues in Texas. KUT Austin has a report about its Muslim community. KERA Dallas looks at how military families are dealing with stress.

You can find links to those stories on our Web site,