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Suspect, devout Muslim from Va., wanted Army discharge, aunt said

By Mary Pat Flaherty, William Wan, Derek Kravitz and Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 6, 2009 5:12 PM

He prayed every day at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, a devout Muslim who, despite asking to be discharged from the U.S. Army, was on the eve of his first deployment to war. Yesterday, authorities said Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, a 39-year-old Arlington-born psychiatrist, shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex.

Today, he remains in a Texas hospital listed in stable condition, breathing with the aid of a ventilator.

As authorities scrambled to figure out what happened at Fort Hood, a hazy and contradictory picture emerged of this son of Palestinian immigrants, a man who received his medical training from the military and spent his career in the Army, yet allegedly turned so violently against his uniformed colleagues. Family, friends, acquaintances and co-workers said Hasan was devoted to his faith, gave generously to those in need, but had few friends and odd, sometimes off-putting work habits. Some were aware of his desire to leave the military, but none suspected he could be capable of violence.

In an interview, his aunt, Noel Hasan of Falls Church, said he had endured name-calling and harassment about his Muslim faith for years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"I know what that is like," she said. "Some people can take it, and some cannot. He had listened to all of that, and he wanted out of the military, and they would not let him leave even after he offered to repay" for his medical training.

An Army spokesman, Lt. Col. George Wright, said he could not confirm that Hasan (pronounced Hass-in) requested a discharge.

Hasan's neighbors in Texas where he had lived since July, described him as cordial but reclusive. The only thing about which he was outgoing was his faith. "Sometimes he would have the white Muslim outfit with the beanie on," and had given copies of the Koran to some of his neighbors.

Over the past few days, Hassan started handing out more Korans, as well as most of his possessions, presumably in preparation for his deployment, the neighbors said.

He gave Patricia Villa folding chairs, a shelf , an air mattress, microwave, clothes racks, shirts and suits -- all practically new.

"He was nice to me," said Villa, 47, who moved to Killeen from Fresno, Calif., last month. "He wanted to leave it to persons who really needed it."

Hasan was born in Arlington and grew up in the Roanoke Valley of southwestern Virginia. He was a bookish young man whose father hoped he would go on to significant professional achievement. He spent nearly all of his Army medical career at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District, caring for the victims of trauma, yet spoke openly of his deep opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hasan was shot during a rampage in which he used his own personal handguns. Investigators have not been able to question him.

The Associated Press reported that Hasan attracted the attention of law enforcement authorities in recent months after an Internet posting under the screen name "NidalHasan" compared Islamic suicide bombers to Japanese kamikaze pilots. "To say that this soldier committed suicide is inappropriate," the posting read. "It's more appropriate to say he is a brave hero that sacrificed his life for a more noble cause."

In a statement issued late Thursday, Hasan's family said they were "shocked and saddened by the terrible events at Fort Hood" and "filled with grief for the families" of victims.

"Our family loves America," said the statement. Noting that Nidal Hasan was an American citizen, the family said: "We are proud of our country, and saddened by today's tragedy. Because this situation is still unfolding, we have nothing else that we are able to share with you at this time.

This morning, TV news trucks and reporters swarmed the Muslim Community Center, where Hasan had attended for many years before transferring to Texas. The mosque's leaders spoke throughout the day, trying to explain the mosque's stance for peace and distancing themselves from the shooter.

"He was a face in the crowd, one of literally a thousand people who came here for prayers," said Arshad Qureshi, chairman of the board of trustees.

While Hasan could be reserved, those who were close to him said he often reached out in unexpected ways, offering one man a ride to the airport and donating money.

Mosque member Juliana Roberson, 46, said he helped buy food for the youth program's weekly meetings, Roberson said.

"This is devastating because they know him personally," she said. "The kids looked up to him."

Hasan stood out at the Center because he would sometimes show up in Army fatigues, said Faizul Khan, the former imam there. He remembered that Hasan was eager to settle down but wanted to marry a woman who was very devout. In his search of a partner in marriage, Hasan wrote in an application filed with a local Muslim matching service that "I am quiet and reserved until more familiar with person. Funny, caring and personable."

"He talked about being 39-years of age, and how much he wanted to have a family, a wife soon," Khan said. "He came to mosque one or two times to see if there were any suitable girls to marry," Khan said. "I don't think he ever had a match, because he had too many conditions. He wanted a girl who was very religious, prays five times a day."

Ezeddine Benyedder, 51, of Silver Spring was one of the few people at Muslim Community Center who considered himself a friend of Hasan's. They first met about eight years ago and saw each other during daily prayers.

"He was a good friend," he said. "Believe me, he was my role model when it came to the Islam life. He was so devout."

Benyedder said there was no signs of anger or frustration from Hasan during his years at the mosque, but recalled that Hasan sought the advice of a few Muslim brothers regarding a presentation he had been preparing to give to his superiors in the Army. Part of the presentation included the argument that the Army should release a soldier from duty if his religion prevented him from actions and orders by the army, Benyedder recalled.

Co-workers saw another side of Hasan.

A longtime Walter Reed colleague who referred patients to psychiatrists said co-workers avoided sending service members to Hasan because of his unusual manner and solitary work habits.

But 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, who was treated by the psychiatrist at Walter Reed while recovering from a gunshot wound suffered in Iraq, said Hasan was polite and respectful.

One Walter Reed co-worker said Hasan would not allow his photo to be taken with female co-workers, which became an issue during Christmas season when employees often took group photos. Co-workers would find a solo photo of Hasan and post it on the bulletin board without his permission.

However, the deputy commander for clinical services at Fort Hood and Hasan's boss said that Hasan went through a peer review in which his fellow doctors found no fault with the care he was providing.

"He was a dedicated hard-working provider who did really care his patients," said Col. Kimberly Kesling, the deputy commander. "Sometimes people have demons we don't know about and make bad choices . . . People who take care of people with problems can develop problems of their own. " Hasan graduated from Virginia Tech in 1995 and earned a medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. From 2003 through last summer, he was an intern, resident and then fellow at Walter Reed, where he worked as a liaison between wounded soldiers and the hospital's psychiatry staff. He was also a fellow at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Bethesda military medical school.

His aunt said he had been affected by the physical and mental injuries he saw while working as a psychiatrist at Walter Reed for nearly eight years.

"He must have snapped," Noel Hasan said. "They ignored him. It was not hard to know when he was upset. He was not a fighter, even as a child and young man. But when he became upset, his face turns red." She said Hasan had consulted with a lawyer about getting out of the service.

On the rare occasions when he spoke of his work in any detail, the aunt said, Hasan told her of soldiers wracked by what they had seen. One patient had suffered burns to his face so intense "that his face had nearly melted," she said. "He told us how upsetting that was to him."

Hasan "did not make many friends" and "did not make friends fast," his aunt said. "He would tell us the military was his life."

Hasan's father, Malik, immigrated to the United States at age 16 from a Palestinian village in the West Bank, an area controlled by Jordan until 1967 but occupied by Israel since then. There, the family tended to an olive grove, neighbors said.

Malik Hasan spent most of his life in Virginia, moving to the Roanoke area in the mid-1980s. He became a successful restaurateur in Vinton, a small railroad town of about 7,800 just east of Roanoke. His businesses included the Capitol, a well-known, blue-collar beer hall on Market Street, the Mount Olive Grill and Bar and the Community Grocery on Elm Avenue. The Hasans lived in a quiet neighborhood of brick ramblers on Ramada Road. Many in the Roanoke Valley who knew Nidal Hasan said their lasting impression was that he was highly intelligent, and somewhat introverted. Thomas O. Sitz, an associate professor of biochemistry at Virginia Tech, where Hasan graduated in 1995, said he was "one of our better students," if not a memorable one.

Mark Owczarski, a spokesman for the university, confirmed the FBI has contacted campus officials and they are cooperating.

Charles Garlick, who lived across the street from the Hasan family in Vinton, described Nidal Hasan as quiet and reserved. "Every time I'd see him, he'd have a book bag over his shoulder," Garlick said. Nidal Hasan's younger brother Eyad -- nicknamed "Eddie" -- played football with Garlick's son, Zachary. Nidal attended Arlington's Wakefield High School but later transferred to William Fleming High School after his family's move to Roanoke. He graduated in 1988. Hasan's mother, Hanan, who went by "Nora," was known as the "keeper of the peace" at the Hasan family's restaurants. She suffered from kidney problems and died in 2001 at age 49, neighbors said. Malik Hasan died in 1998, at age 52, after suffering a heart attack at his home. The couple is buried in Falls Church.

The Hasan family was large and had deep roots in Roanoke Valley, said Amer Azibidi, minister and imam of the KUFA Center of Islamic Knowledge. At Mount Olive, Malik worked with his brother, Jose. The pair cooked many of the dishes, including lamb kebabs and stuffed grape leaves. But the premature deaths of Malik and Nora Hasan had left the family scattered.

Nidal Hasan enlisted in the Army after high school over his parents' objections, Noel Hasan said. He was a student at Barstow Community College in California and Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke before enrolling at Virginia Tech, Tech officials said. He began his studies at Tech in the summer of 1992, eventually majoring in biochemistry with minors in biology and chemistry. He graduated with honors, officials at the university said, but was not a member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets or any ROTC program at Tech.

Hasan was "like my sons," his aunt said, spending holidays and free time at her house.

When Army officials called Eyad Hasan to relay the news from Fort Hood on Thursday, Noel Hasan said, the brother "fainted when he heard it." Initially, she said, Eyad was told his brother was injured and in surgery and later was erroneously told he had died.

Hasan is an avid Redskins fan. "That was his main entertainment," his aunt said.

Noel Hasan was unaware of her nephew's pending deployment. "He didn't call or send an e-mail saying anything like that," she said.

His last e-mail to her, she said, was a little more than a week ago "and it was just, "Hi, Aunt Noel. How are you doing?' " On Thursday evening as he was getting into bed, Benyedder received a phone call telling him that his friend had been involved in something. He turned on the television to see Hasan's face on every channel.

"I just cried," Benyedder said. "I was in tears. I couldn't understand. I don't know the words. This is not the person I knew."

Kravitz reported from Roanoke.

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