Families, soldiers mourn comrades; share stories of survival

By William Branigin and Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009; 5:59 PM

Pfc. Francheska Velez had survived a tour disarming bombs in in Iraq. After a visit home in August, the 21-year-old Chicago resident learned she was pregnant. Velez arranged for maternity leave, and she stopped at Fort Hood, Tex., on her way home.

Velez was among the 13 people killed Thursday at a soldier readiness facility at the sprawling military post when an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, allegedly opened fire on a crowd of soldiers. At least 30 others were wounded.

"She was supposed to be coming very, very soon. Everyone's devastated. Everyone's at a loss for words," said her cousin Jennifer Arzuaga. "She was very young. She wasn't supposed to die the way she died."

Velez, whose father came from Colombia and mother from Puerto Rico, joined the Army three years ago because she wanted to travel and make something of herself.

Her pleasures tended toward the simple and her dancing was divine. Salsa and meringue, especially.

"She always made everybody happy. That's what it was about for her -- her family and her friends," Arzuaga said. As for Iraq, "She didn't really like it, but she was okay," Arzuaga said. "She was just keeping strong. She was ready for anything."

Another of the 13 victims killed in was a 29-year-old smalltown Wisconsin woman who walked into an Army recruiting office one week after watching the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on television.

Sgt. Amy Krueger was sent to Afghanistan on her first tour of duty and worked in a 24-bed hospital there. By the time of Thursday's shooting, she had risen to the rank of sergeant with the Madison-based 467th Medical Detachment. She had arrived at Fort Hood only two days earlier and was scheduled to be re-deployed to Afghanistan in December.

A deep patriotic streak runs through the Wisconsin town of Kiel and ran through Krueger, according to a profile that appeared in her hometown paper two years after she enlisted.

According to the newspaper story, Krueger said she felt she needed to be "an army of one," quoting the Army's recruiting slogan.

Her mother, Jerilyn Krueger, was quoted as saying, "You can't take this on all by yourself."

"Just watch me," her mother said Krueger replied.

According to Krueger's high school principal, the mother eventually embraced her daughter's ambition.

She "was just very proud of Amy and what she was doing in the military," Dario Talerico said today.

She described the town of Kiel a "a traditional German community. Everybody is very close. This happens, and it just blows you away."

Pfc. Michael Pearson, 21, also killed in Thursday's attack, was a self-taught pianist and aspiring guitarist who "had a little Jimi Hendrix in him," a relative said today, as the family gathered to grieve in suburban Chicago.

Before the attack at Fort Hood, Pfc. Pearson was preparing to decamp for Afghanistan to become a bomb disposal specialist. His family knew he had received a series of inoculations and, when they learned of the shooting, figured Pearson would be safely elsewhere.

A surgeon called to deliver the grim news.

Pearson graduated from Bolingbrook High School, where his passion was music, said the relative, who asked not to be identified. When he enlisted, he sought adventure, educational opportunities and the chance to serve.

"He was very reflective and introspective and wise beyond his years," the relative said. "He knew the importance of things, whether they were pleasant or not."

Spc. Jason Dean Hunt, 22, killed during Thursday's attacks, had already served one tour of duty in Iraq, and transferred to Fort Hood to be closer to his family.

Hunt was married in August in nearby Oklahoma City and likened his military family to the love a parent feels for a child, according to his sister.

"I told him that he may not know what a parents' love is like until he had his own children, because you would die for your child," said Leila Willingham, 30, of Frederick, Okla. "And he said, 'I would die for your children.' He said, 'I would die for a stranger to save them.' And he said he would dive in front of a bullet for a soldier."

Hunt celebrated his 21st birthday in Iraq and re-enlisted while there, his sister said.

Among the wounded victims is Matthew Cooke, a 30-year-old father of two who served two tours in Iraq. He was waiting for a blood test at Fort Hood's Soldier Readiness Processing Center in preparation for another deployment when gunfire erupted Thursday, catching the roughly 300 unarmed soldiers there off guard.

Cooke, of Afton, N.Y., was shot five times by a gunman later identified as an Army psychiatrist, becoming one of 30 people wounded in the nation's worst shooting on a U.S. military installation. Thirteen others were killed in the rampage.

"All we know is that he's awake and alert and in a lot of pain," Cooke's mother-in-law, Jamie Casteel, told The Washington Post on Friday. His sister, Christina Cooke, told a New York television station that her brother was shot in the abdomen and has multiple organ injuries but is expected to live.

Cooke returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq in April and was transferred to Fort Hood in August, Casteel said. He and his wife, Sarah, live off-post with their 1-year-old son. Cooke has another son, age 5, from a previous marriage. Casteel, who drove to Texas on Thursday night from her home in Oklahoma to be with her daughter, said Cooke's unit was scheduled to deploy again to Iraq in January but that Cooke was not expected to head there until March or April.

Around Fort Hood and across the nation, dozens of families were suffering similar ordeals Friday as they anxiously awaited updates on the condition of their loved ones.

In a brief appearance Friday morning in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama said that from now until Veterans Day on Nov. 11, flags at the White House and other federal buildings will be flow at half-staff to honor the victims of the Fort Hood shooting.

"This is a modest tribute to those who lost their lives even as many were preparing to risk their lives for their country, and it's also a recognition of the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect our safety and uphold our values," Obama said. "We honor their service; we stand in awe of their sacrifice."

In addition, the Pentagon ordered a worldwide moment of silence on all U.S. military installations at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time -- the time the shooting began at Fort Hood on Thursday.

A candlelight vigil at the football stadium at Fort Hood is scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight.

The military also was dispatching dozens of grief counselors and family assistance teams to Fort Hood from around the country, officials said.

Of the 30 people wounded, all but two were still hospitalized Friday, and all were in stable condition, authorities said.

Among them was the alleged shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, and a civilian policewoman, Sgt. Kimberly Munley, who ended the rampage when she shot the gunman four times despite being wounded herself.

Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, Fort Hood's commanding general, hailed Munley on Friday for "an amazing and an aggressive performance" in rushing into the processing center with her partner and confronting the shooter as he was turning a corner.

Seven of the wounded were taken to nearby Metroplex Adventist Hospital, while 10 went to Scott & White Memorial Hospital about 30 miles away in Temple, Tex., officials said. Both hospitals received a huge turnout of people offering to donate blood. There were so many volunteers that the hospitals eventually had to close their doors and turn away hundreds.

The daughters of Randy Royer, a major with the Alabama National Guard who was wounded in the massacre, gathered Friday at their mother's house in Griffin, Ga., to wait for updates on his second round of surgery. Text messages from concerned relatives lit up their phones, and Royer's wife of 12 years, Tricia, called in updates from pay phones in Fort Hood. The major's wounds are not considered life-threatening and he is in stable condition, according to Lt. Col. Cindy Bachus, public affairs officer for the Alabama National Guard.

Royer, 47, was signing off on his deployment papers in the Soldier Readiness Processing Center when a bullet struck his arm, according to his daughter, Mandy Royer. As he attempted to take cover, a second bullet shattered his leg.

"He's really a go-with-the-flow kind of guy," said Mandy Royer, 30. "Things don't bother him, and he loves to get out and have a good time with the kids, play ball, ride four-wheelers, play video games."

Some victims were being treated at Fort Hood's Darnall Army Medical Center, while two were airlifted to Seton Medical Center in Round Rock, near Austin.

W. Roy Smythe, head of surgery at Scott & White, said six of the wounded at the hospital remain in intensive care, while four have been moved to regular rooms. Smythe said the patients were shot in various parts of the body, and several had multiple gunshot wounds. Of the six still in intensive care, he said, two require additional surgery.

Although all the patients are stable at the moment, Smythe said, it was possible that the death toll could mount.

"I don't think there is an excellent chance that everyone will recover," he said. Several of the patients are "not at all out of the woods."

Smythe refused to confirm that Hasan is being treated at Scott & White.

Authorities were not releasing the names of the dead or wounded pending notification of their families. But several of the victims' relatives spoke to reporters about their loved ones.

Cone told CNN on Friday morning that he visited wounded soldiers overnight and was inspired by their stories of how they responded to the attack.

"I met a young man who had been shot four times -- with a very large caliber weapon. He is one very tough young man," Cone said. "Another young woman who was shot didn't even realize she'd been shot. She took off her blouse and used it to put a tourniquet on another soldier's leg. And then finally, when she was finished, she looked down at her own hip and saw that she had been shot."

Appearing on the "Today" show a short time later, Cone identified the female soldier as Amber Bahr, and called her an "amazing young lady."

Bahr's mother, Lisa Pfund, of Random Lake, Wis., told reporters that her 19-year-old daughter was shot in the stomach and was in stable condition.

Spec. Keara Bono, 21, a member of the Army Reserve, called her mother, Peggy McCarty, from a hospital and said she had been shot in the back. McCarty told CNN that her daughter had arrived at Fort Hood a day earlier and was scheduled to deploy to Iraq on Dec. 7.

George Stratton III, an 18-year-old Army recruit who graduated from high school earlier this year, told his father that he was in the Soldier Readiness Processing Center when a man walked in, went behind a desk and suddenly opened fire.

"About 15 rounds went off really quick," said George Stratton Jr., relating what his son had told him about the shooting. "It was ear-shattering," he said on CNN.

The elder Stratton said his son "dropped down to take cover," then peeked up and saw the gunman "standing right in front of him, five feet away." He said his son told him, "He shot me right in the shoulder."

Said the father, "It could have been a lot worse."

Staff writers Ed O'Keefe, Philip Rucker, Peter Slevin, Ashley Surdin and Dan Zak contributed to this report. Special correspondent Julian Aguilar in Temple, Tex., also contributed.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company