Texas lawmakers push for compensation for Fort Hood victims and their families

 
 
A soldier takes a moment to run her fingers over the engravings of the names of her fellow soldiers at a ceremony to unveil a memorial to those killed in the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre.
A soldier takes a moment to run her fingers over the engravings of the names of her fellow soldiers at a ceremony to unveil a memorial to those killed in the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre.
SONYA N. HEBERT / Dallas Morning News/MCT

Convicted Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan’s guilty verdict and death sentence this week mean a new chapter for his victims, say Texas lawmakers, who will announce Monday a new push for increased benefits and recognition through the Purple Heart medal and its civilian equivalent.

Three Texas Republican lawmakers – Sen. John Cornyn and Reps. John Carter and Roger Williams – have been battling the military’s classification of the Nov. 5, 2009, shootings that killed 13 and wounded more than 30 as “workplace violence.”

On Monday, they will be in Killeen, Texas, site of the trial, to present their legislation, the Honoring the Fort Hood Heroes Act, that would give the military and civilian victims of the attack the same treatment as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack victims. If enacted, they would become eligible for the military’s Purple Heart Award or the Department of Defense’s civilian equivalent.

The lawmakers intend to offer the bill when Congress returns from summer recess next month.

“I believe the victims of this terrorist attack deserve the same recognition as those attacked by terrorists on September 11th,” said Carter, whose district includes the Fort Hood Army base near Killeen. “It is time this administration stops calling this ‘workplace violence’ and label it for what it is – an act of terror on U.S. soil.”

In the years since the shootings, similar legislation has been attached to House of Representatives-passed defense bills, but never approved, largely out of military and administration concern for affecting the court-martial of Hasan, a U.S.-born Army psychiatrist.

Hasan, a Muslim, was about to be deployed to Afghanistan and was upset about what he considered a U.S. war against Islam.

But recent reports that Hasan has collected more than $300,000 in pay since the shootings have helped galvanize additional attention and sympathy for the victims and their families. Several survivors testified during the trial about how their lives had been shattered, and others say they continue to be affected by the aftermath.

“I still think about it every day,” said Howard Ray, a sergeant at the time, who was in the building next door to the shootings and was actually shot at by Hasan but not wounded.

He was commended with a medal for helping several people avoid being hit. Now retired, Ray said that giving the victims the Purple Heart – he did not consider himself to be eligible – would be “government accountability.”

Cornyn has taken the episode to heart.

“As a country, we must ensure that the dead, the wounded, and the families of the victims receive the full honors and benefits bestowed upon soldiers who are wounded or killed in overseas combat zones, and their families,” Cornyn wrote in an op-ed column for the Killeen newspaper. “Unfortunately, we have not yet lived up to that commitment.”

“To date, no Purple Hearts or the civilian counterpart, the Medal for the Defense of Freedom, have been awarded to the victims,” he wrote.

Cornyn said that benefits, including hostile fire pay and special compensation for combat-related disabilities, that come with serving in combat zones overseas have also been withheld, as have certain life insurance benefits and tax relief for families of the victims.

The Pentagon denies that it explicitly called the shootings “workplace violence,” although the term surfaced in an outside report done for then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

“We never characterized it as ‘workplace violence,’” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson. “We’ve never characterized it as anything.”

Williams said that’s the problem.

“I don’t think anybody but the administration considered this to be ‘workplace violence,’” the congressman said. “Now that the trial is over with, I want to go full speed ahead and get victims their benefits.”

Email: mrecio@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @maria_e_recio

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