Fort Hood Renders Emotional Farewell to Fallen Comrades
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
FORT HOOD, Texas, Nov. 10, 2009 Thousands of soldiers, veterans, military family members and civilian employees gathered here beneath brilliant blue skies to bid an emotional farewell to 13 of their own killed during last week’s shooting rampage, and to support the families left behind.
Many of the 38 wounded during the attack had recovered enough from their injuries to attend today’s memorial service, which included eulogies by President Barack Obama, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr. and Army Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, the 3rd Corps and Fort Hood commander.
The service, held in front of the flag-draped 3rd Corps headquarters, opened with the haunting call of bagpipes. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Donald Felt read a roll call, marked by painful silences after the names of the fallen. The 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Air Cavalry Brigade broke the quiet with the roaring firing of volleys.
A flag fluttered in the breeze at half-staff as the 1st Cavalry Division’s Army Master Sgt. Natasha Harley delivered a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” But nothing captured the solemnity of the occasion as movingly as Army Sgt. Christopher William’s gut-wrenching wail of taps.
“For those families who have lost a loved one, no words can fill the void that has been left,” Obama told those gathered in a sea of Army combat uniforms that stretched across the parade field.
But the president assured the families that their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters and brothers won’t be forgotten. “Your loved ones endure through the life of our nation,” he said. “Their memory will be honored in the places they lived and by the people they touched. Their life’s work is our security, and the freedom that we too often take for granted.”
Official comments during today’s service, and in interviews with soldiers here, reflected an unshakable bewilderment that the losses allegedly came at the hands of one of Fort Hood’s own soldiers.
Cone noted the hundreds of losses Fort Hood has suffered on the battlefield. “Never did we expect to pay such a high price at home,” he said.
“It’s just sad that it had to be one of our own,” Army Spc. Brian Hill of the 2nd Warrior Transition Battalion said of the suspected gunman. “That’s been the hardest part to deal with. At home, you don’t expect things like this to happen.”
Hill, who walks with a cane after being wounded in Iraq, said he’s working through the stages of grief and acceptance since the incident – first shock, then grief and sadness, and now, as he hears more details, anger. Stopping short of assigning blame, he said, “it’s senseless, and it never should have happened.”
“It was a kick in the gut,” Casey acknowledged during his address, but also one that evoked countless acts of bravery and selflessness amidst the tragedy.
The fallen shared a belief in the United States’ values and ideals and a willingness to put themselves on the line to protect it, he said. “They gave their lives for something they loved and believed in,” he told their families.
Cone joined Obama and Casey in calling on his soldiers, their families and the close-knit local community to take care of each other as they work through the tragedy.
Many of his soldiers called today’s service an important step in a healing process they said begins with honoring the fallen and their families.
“It reaffirmed who we are and what we stand for,” said Army Spc. Jerry Jeanlouis, an Army reservist with the 478th Transportation Company here preparing for his upcoming deployment.
Jeanlouis was scheduled to be at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center when the gunshots erupted there last week. But instead, he had asked to postpone his appointment so he could go to the range for additional weapons training.
Several of his fellow soldiers were at the facility, but none were among those killed or wounded.
“Now, we must move on,” Jeanlouis said after today’s service. “We will carry the memories of the fallen in our hearts.”
Army Sgt. John Vacaro, a Ranger assigned to the 38th Cavalry’s B Troop, came to today’s service “to honor our comrades, our brothers in arms.”
He was across post in West Fort Hood when the shooting occurred, and didn’t know anyone directly affected. But Vacaro said the incident struck deeply throughout the Fort Hood community.
Back home only since August after a 12-month deployment to Iraq, Vacaro shook his head contemplating that a soldier had allegedly taken his fellow soldiers’ lives on their home soil. “This is supposed to be your safe spot,” he said.
Army Spc. Peter Kniskern, a 1st Battalion, 21st Field Artillery soldier who returned from Iraq in July, was two blocks away when the shots rang out that afternoon of Nov. 5.
Kniskern had just come off the previous night’s staff duty, and was catching some shut-eye in his barracks room when his cell phone started buzzing. Anxious family members in Alabama were calling and sending text messages, wanting to know if he was OK. He’d heard sirens in the distance, but not yet aware of the shooting, had dismissed them as some kind of drill.
“It’s an eye-opener,” he said of the incident, still unable to accept that the accused is a soldier. “It was one of our own guys who we trusted.”
Today, as he waited for the memorial service to begin, Kniskern said the significance of today’s service transcended the luminaries at the podium.
“This is about us paying respect,” he said. “I’m just happy that they are being honored, and that the family members are being taken care of and respected.”
Army Sgt. John Newhof, a 38th Cavalry B Troop soldier, said today’s service sends a message beyond Fort Hood’s gates. “It shows the outside world that we take care of our families and each other,” he said. “This is one large family.”
“This shows the world that we stick together….It shows that we are a family,” echoed Jenni Yacub, wife of retired Army Sgt. Harold Yacub, who works at the base’s military pay office.
Yacub wasn’t at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center during the shootings, but several of her coworkers were, helping soldiers just returned from deployments or preparing to deploy soon.
Behavioral counselors arrived at her office the next day to give the staff an opportunity to talk about the whirlwind of emotions they were experiencing. “That helped a lot,” Yacub said.
“We have to get through this,” she said, her voice choking with emotion. “It’s all a part of moving beyond what has happened.”
Yacub called today’s service a big step in that direction. “It’s very, very important to us,” she said, particularly with the president’s show of support. “It touches us,” she said. “It shows that he cares about the soldiers.”
Her husband, who retired from Fort Hood and has lived in the local community for the past 15 years, said today’s service helps bring a sense of closure from last week’s tragedy.
“This is a very supportive, military-oriented community. We’re bonding together and dealing with the tragedy,” he said. “But it really helps to know that we have support from the president, the vice president and the whole chain of command … We as a community will get through this.”
As he began walking off the parade field after today’s service, cane in hand, Hill said he was happy to see the fallen properly honored. “This is a part of closure that will start the healing process,” he said.