FORT HOOD, Texas -- Five years after a similar visit, President Barack Obama was back Wednesday on the same field in front of the same building on the same Army post in the same state, with some of the same faces again grieving for soldiers killed in an act of senseless violence.
For president and mourners alike, the outdoor service for the victims of last week’s military base rampage at Fort Hood proved a haunting repeat of the first mass shooting on Obama’s watch, in the fall of 2009. The casualty toll was lighter this time and the apparent motives different, but the anguish was no less powerful.
“Part of what makes this so painful is that we’ve been here before,” a somber Obama told an estimated 3,000 people gathered on Sadowski Field. “This tragedy tears at wounds still raw from five years ago. Once more, soldiers who survived foreign war zones were struck down here at home, where they’re supposed to be safe. We still do not yet know exactly why. But we do know this. We must honor their lives not in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.”
While base commanders were still trying to determine why a soldier shot three of his comrades and then himself, Obama vowed to do more to address mental illness among veterans.
“Today, four American soldiers are gone; four Army families are devastated,” he said. “As commander in chief, I’m determined we will continue to step up our efforts to reach our troops and veterans who are hurting, to deliver to them the care that they need and to make sure we never stigmatize those that have the courage to seek help.”
Arrayed in front of the president were three helmets mounted on rifles, three sets of boots and three photographs, one for each of those shot to death by Spc. Ivan A. Lopez on April 2, just as there were 13 such sets five years ago. And just as he did in November 2009, after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s shooting spree, Obama paid homage to the courage of a generation of men and women who signed up to protect their country only to lose their lives at home.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff and former commander in Iraq during some of the worst fighting there, said death in combat was “a risk we can understand” as soldiers. “That these soldiers were lost on American soil at the hands of one of our own makes this tragedy heartbreaking and inexplicable,” he said.
The service came seven days after Lopez killed three soldiers and wounded 16 others before taking his own life, following an argument he had with soldiers from his unit about their handling of his request for leave.
Many of Lopez’s victims were soldiers in his unit, the 49th Transportation Battalion. Eleven of the 19 soldiers he killed or wounded were shot inside the battalion’s administrative office, where his argument over his leave request began.
Collectively, the three soldiers who were killed had 50 years of service in the Army. Sgt. 1st Class Daniel M. Ferguson served nearly 21 years and was engaged to be married. Staff Sgt. Carlos A. Lazaney-Rodriguez was months away from retiring after 20 years. Sgt. Timothy W. Owens joined the service after the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, knowing he could be sent into combat. All three grew up in small towns; in all, they were deployed overseas nine times, each of them at least once to Iraq.
Obama hailed the courage of Ferguson, who held a door shut to keep the gunman out, saving lives even as he sacrificed his own. And the president said that Owens attempted to intervene and stop the carnage.
“It’s said that Timothy — the counselor, even then — gave his life, walking toward the gunman, trying to calm him down,” Obama said.
That was the first time many heard that account. Two civilian friends of Owens, Caycee Hauck, 22, and Timothy Hall, 24, who attended the ceremony, said the description rang true.
“It sounds like something he would do,” Hall said.
“He’s a hero,” Hauck added.
Plenty of those at the ceremony never knew any of the victims, but were nonetheless moved by the moment.
“It really affects the entire Army family,” said Rachel Regallis, the wife of an Army mechanic from Fort Hood who has deployed to South Korea.
Four soldiers wounded in the shooting remained hospitalized in stable condition, according to a military official. Two of the soldiers were receiving treatment at Fort Hood’s Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center and two more were being held at Scott & White Memorial Hospital, a civilian facility in Temple, east of the post.
The timing of the shooting has been particularly difficult. An Army official said that part of the 49th battalion was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in approximately 45-60 days. The official did not believe that Lopez was among those preparing for deployment.
Known as the “49ers,” the battalion has had an affiliation with Fort Hood for more than 30 years. The unit is responsible for moving people and supplies and, according to a 2004 article distributed by an Army public affairs office, was at once responsible for all transportation logistics within Iraq, often managing 250 convoys each day. The next year, another Army publication said that while in Iraq, the battalion helped process more than 100,000 passengers and 140 million pounds of supplies. The president stood about 2 miles from Building 42003, the medical processing center where Hasan started his shooting rampage. The building is now an empty patch of ground, after Fort Hood officials demolished it. They plan to mark the site with trees, a gazebo and a plaque.
Obama passed lightly over any larger lessons from that episode or this one. His spokesman, Jay Carney, said the president’s views of gun control were well known, and he referred to the Pentagon questions about whether soldiers on military posts should be allowed to carry concealed weapons, as some Republican lawmakers have suggested.
The president said the country must “keep firearms out of the hands of those” with mental troubles. “As a military,” he said, “we must continue to do everything in our power to secure our facilities and spare others this pain.”