Part of being the family member of a soldier is the knowledge that when your loved one deploys overseas, you may never see them whole again. Some soldiers come back without visible wounds but with shattered minds. Some return with bodies wrecked by the savage machinery of war. Some don’t come back at all.
It is a risk that soldiers are willing to take in order to serve and protect their nation and a risk that the families also begrudgingly accept. That doesn’t make it any easier when the message is delivered that changes their world forever.
One of the more brief but powerful scenes at the beginning of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan is when Mrs. Ryan sees a government car slowly approaching her home. She walks out onto her front porch, only to slowly collapse into sobs when she realizes that the unexpected arrival heralds the death of her sons. There are no words in that scene. Some feelings are simply beyond words.
On Thursday afternoon, family members of real soldiers experienced the crushing sense of loss and isolation when they learned that their loved ones were inexplicably cut down on base.
Not in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in Texas.
Such things should not happen.
Now that the initial confusion has passed, we know that 12 soldiers were killed yesterday and 30 people were wounded. They were shot by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a fellow soldier at Fort Hood. Hasan was a psychiatrist scheduled to deploy to Iraq at the end of November. It would have been his first overseas deployment. Ironically, Hasan specialized in treating traumatic stress. He was wounded by a responding civilian police officer and is in custody.
The knee-jerk response of many to seeing the shooter’s Arabic name was to assume this was a terrorist attack. Impulsive or not, facts now suggest that Hasan’s Islamic faith was indeed a motivating factor in the killings. That supposition seems backed by claims he shouted “Allahu Akbar!” before he began his rampage.
According to an officer who served with him at Walter Reed Hospital, Hasan spoke approvingly of the shooting of Army recruiters this past summer by a Muslim convert in Little Rock, Arkansas. Authorities also investigated Hasan as long as six months ago for internet postings discussing suicide bombings and other attacks, though they have not yet determined definitively if he was the author of those posts. One of those posts was a blog entry that deified suicide bombers as being similar to soldiers who throw themselves on hand grenades in order to save the lives of their fellow soldiers.
Other accounts scattered through the media deepen the portrait of Hasan as a lonely, miserable man who was not performing well at his job and who could not bear the thought of deploying to Iraq.
His family is attempting to establish another narrative about Hasan. A cousin, Nader Hasan, builds a picture of the shooter as a bullied Muslim who was a good person who did not even like weapons, was conflicted about his military service, and was against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The portrayal he paints is that of a bullied man pushed too far who simply snapped under pressure — and perhaps some of that is true.
But postings that are thought to be Major Hasan’s don’t match the portrait of a soldier who was conflicted. They present us with a picture of someone who housed beliefs that established him as a lurking enemy. U.S. Representative Michael McCaul attended a military briefing this morning and found out that Hasan had taken “a lot of extra classes in weapons training, which seems a little odd for a psychiatrist.” In retrospect — and combined with information that Hasan had started yesterday by giving away some of his personal effects, such as furniture — it appears that his assault at Fort Hood wasn’t the result of a man under extreme pressure suddenly snapping. Instead, it looks like a calculating murderer took the time to prepare for his attack well in advance.
We don’t yet know what specific factor caused Hasan to attack this group of soldiers among the tens of thousands on base. Unless he talks to investigators, we may never know the exact reason he entered Fort Hood with a pair of pistols and conducted the deadliest ever attack on a domestic U.S. military base. But we speculate. It’s what people do, for better or worse.
In one sense, other American Muslim soldiers are also victims of Hasan’s murderous attack, as suspicions will be raised about their allegiances as well. Hasan’s attack was the third significant “blue on blue” attack by an American soldier on his fellow soldiers in the past 14 years and the second by a Muslim. Sgt. William Kreutzer Jr. fired on a formation of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, killing one and wounding 17 (formerly the most extensive assault on U.S. forces by a peer) in a 1995 stateside assault. He was recently sentenced to life in prison. Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a convert to Islam, was sentenced to death in 2005 for a 2003 attack that left two soldiers dead and 14 wounded in Kuwait prior to the invasion of Iraq. These attacks are remembered, even as Muslim servicemen like Spc. Kareem Khan and Staff Sgt. Ayman Taha are interred in Arlington National Cemetery almost unnoticed.
Marine veteran Sgt. Robert Salaam writes at the American Muslim that Hasan is:
A traitor to both God and our country … as an American Muslim who like thousands of other American Muslims who serve and have served in America’s armed forces and kept their oaths to God, Country, and in my case Corps, [I] condemn these actions and pray for the victims of this madman.
The American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council has also issued a statement:
[We condemn] in the strongest terms the attack on soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas resulting in the murder of at least a dozen soldiers and the wounding of many others. We express our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. We join the Community of Fort Hood, Texas in their mourning.
Major Hasan’s attack ended when he was hit by four bullets. The traumatic anguish he caused in that attack will echo for years to come.