After wars abroad, Obama confronts their toll on those who served

President Obama and the first lady attended a memorial service Wednesday for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting that left three soldiers dead. (WhiteHouse.gov)

President Obama arrived here again Wednesday to console a mourning military community that has carried the burden of the nation’s post-Sept. 11 conflicts, marking a turn from the wars abroad to the one now looming at home.

As a dry wind blew across this vast Army post, Obama eulogized three soldiers, all veterans of the Iraq war, who were killed last week by Spec. Ivan Lopez, a fellow Iraq veteran who was being treated for mental illness.

The president’s words were hopeful, drawing on Scripture. But they also included a call to better receive the millions of troops returning from the post-9/11 battles, many of them suffering in unseen ways from their tours.

“We must honor these men by doing more to care for our fellow Americans living with mental illness, civilian and military,” he said. “As commander in chief, I’m determined that 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 who have the courage to seek help.”

The visit was a grim return for Obama. Less than a year into his administration, he flew here with his first message of public condolence as a wartime commander in chief. It had suddenly become, over the course of that November afternoon, a domestic extension of the battlefields abroad.

Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, an Army psychiatrist embittered by the United States’ wars in Muslim countries, had opened fire at a medical center on the post where troops are checked out before deployment. He killed 13 people — soldiers and caregivers, retired and active-duty, some home from combat tours and some simply making their way through another taxing day supporting those conflicts at home.

“This,” Obama said in memorializing the dead then, “is a time of war.”

On Wednesday, accompanied by the first lady, Obama arrived at a much different time in his presidency and in America’s post-9/11 history. The post is a battlefield in its own right, an enclave capturing the grave challenge of the next war the United States will fight.

Obama was able to frame Hasan’s attack as part of America’s hot wars, given that its motivation was rooted in the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 576 soldiers from this post have died. But the killings carried out last week by Lopez represent the next conflict.

Lopez was under treatment for depression. In committing suicide at the end of his shooting rampage, which wounded 16 others, he became one of 22 veterans who kill themselves on average every day.

It is an epidemic, veterans’ advocates warn, that is falling hard on the generation that Obama described in 2009 as those who “signed up to serve in the shadow of 9/11.” The suicide rate is rising as more and more troops return.

Obama attempted to define the outlines of this next war — the one being fought at home in the scattered aftermath of a dozen years of combat abroad, conducted by a relatively small segment of the U.S. population.

“In an era when fewer Americans know someone in uniform, every American must see these men and these women, our 9/11 generation, as the extraordinary citizens that they are,” he said. “And when we truly welcome our veterans home, when we show them that we need them not just to fight in other countries but to build up our own, then our schools and our businesses, our communities and our nation will be more successful, and America will be stronger and more united for decades to come.”

The service was held on what most days is an open grass field — a training course on one edge and an American flag, on this day fluttering at half-staff, nearby.

Security preparations turned the area where Obama spoke into a bunker. Shipping containers stacked two and three high broke the breeze available for several hundred family members, friends, military officers and elected officials who attended the service.

In spirit, Obama’s remarks echoed the solemn speech he delivered during his November 2009 visit, when he mentioned each victim by name, described briefly the defining features of their lives and called their deaths “incomprehensible.”

He did so again Wednesday, while telling the families present that “no words are equal to your loss.”

Then he remembered Sgt. 1st Class Danny Ferguson, 39, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan; Staff Sgt. Carlos A. Lazaney Rodriguez, 38, an Iraq veteran just months from retirement; and Sgt. Timothy Owens, 37, an Iraq veteran who enlisted after the 2001 attacks and recently married.

“In moments such as this, we summon once more what we’ve learned in these hard years of war,” he said. “We reach within our wounded hearts. We lean on each other. We hold each other up, we carry on, and with God’s amazing grace, we somehow bear what seems unbearable.”

At the time of Hasan’s attack, the politics were in some ways more complicated for Obama than they are now, as he unwinds the last of the post-9/11 wars and focuses public attention on the plight of those struggling with the mental anguish that often lingers after combat ends.

Hasan, inspired by the radical teachings of Yemeni American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, opened fire here just five months after Obama had asked the Muslim world for a “new beginning” in a speech at Cairo University. The address was designed to close the gulf between the United States and Islamic communities after Sept. 11 and the wars that followed — an approach many conservatives viewed skeptically given the enduring threat from al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.

Hasan’s call of “Allahu Akbar” before he began shooting shattered some of the administration’s early optimism that followed the Cairo speech, which had been generally well received abroad. Obama had to speak carefully here about Islam and the gunman’s motivations; in his remarks, he never mentioned Hasan by name.

He also did not name Lopez on Wednesday, although he included him tacitly among the victims in declaring that “four soldiers are dead.”

In the intervening years, Hasan has been sentenced to death for his crime. Awlaki, whose teachings helped turn the soldier against his country, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011, becoming the first American citizen to be targeted that way.

The wars have also ebbed. U.S. troops have left Iraq, even if that country’s conflict has yet to resolve itself. The American military involvement in Afghanistan — the longest in U.S. history — is scheduled to conclude in its current form at the end of the year.

“We must honor their lives not in word or talk, but in deed and in truth,” Obama said. “We must honor these men with a renewed commitment to keep our troops safe, not just in battle, but on the home front as well.”

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