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Years of war make Fort Hood no stranger to death, mourning

By Greg Jaffe , Philip Rucker and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 9, 2009

FORT HOOD, TEX. -- Brig. Gen. William F. Grimsley stood at the edge of the 4th Infantry Division's Iraq war memorial, one of many monuments to soldiers who lived and trained on this sprawling Army post.

At the center of the monument a bronze soldier, cast from a melted-down sculpture of Saddam Hussein, kneels in grief. A young Iraqi girl places a comforting hand on his shoulder. Surrounding them both is a brick wall bearing the names of hundreds of fallen men and women.

Ninety-three of the soldiers on the memorial were killed when Grimsley served as the division's assistant commander in 2008. He attended many of their memorial services and saluted as their remains were loaded onto planes headed back to the United States in solemn runway ramp ceremonies.

"Never in my 29 years in the Army would I have thought that I would attend a ramp ceremony at Fort Hood as I did in theater," he said.

More than 500 troops from Fort Hood have died in the past five years. Each story is different, each soldier honored, but the cumulative effect of all that death has spawned a numbness here that was especially apparent following last week's killings at the post.

Fort Hood has been physically and emotionally altered by eight years of war. The memorials here are growing month by month as new names are chiseled in stone or forged in brass. An old medical building was converted into a spiritual fitness center; a battalion headquarters was turned into a center for survivor outreach. A former artillery commander in Iraq is now the commandant of the Resiliency Campus, where soldiers and their families go for counseling, and to learn how to reduce anxiety and stress through meditation and yoga.

"We are a community that is hunkered down, that has to guard our hearts, because how many tragedies can you endure, without it leaving some residue on your soul?" said retired Lt. Col. Jon Tidball, who was a senior chaplain at Fort Hood until last year. He said he has presided over hundreds of memorial services in the past eight years, and he is preparing for more after 13 people were killed and 38 wounded here in an attack last week that federal investigators say was carried out by Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, an Army psychiatrist.

"We're suffering from a kind of emotional, spiritual and physical fatigue," said Tidball, whose son is serving in Iraq and called home to make sure his father was okay.

It is common after mass killings for local institutions to quickly tie yellow or black ribbons, erect makeshift altars of flowers and flags, and for stores to put up posters offering prayers and condolences. But no big displays are visible at Fort Hood today. The only sign of mourning following the shootings were the post flags lowered to half-staff, and a small bouquet of yellow mums and a silver helium balloon near the crime scene. At the entrance to the post on Sunday afternoon, half a dozen photographers clustered around a man holding a sign that read "Pray for Our Troops."

State of war

Soldiers here have been in an almost constant state of churn since the Iraq war began in 2003. At any given moment, about one-third of them are deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, one-third have just returned home and the remaining third are in training to leave within the next 12 months.

The shootings occurred at the post's Soldier Readiness Processing Center, where troops go through final medical screenings before being deployed, but within 24 hours, the 1st Cavalry Division's Iron Horse gymnasium had been remade into a new processing center.

"There's no slowdown," said Col. John Rossi.

On Sunday morning, the faithful gathered for their weekly gospel service at Comanche Chapel on Tank Destroyer Boulevard. Army wives shooed their broods toward the entrance, and the youngest children put on their red and black Angel Choir gowns.

"I will not focus directly on the incident," said Capt. Jason Blake, the chaplain, about the sermon he intended to deliver. "We are Army-strong. Our focus is on recovery."

'It's my job.'

A few miles away on the post, some of the soldiers who were wounded in the shootings were back with their families. They came onto their front lawns to talk -- a little bit -- about what happened and how they felt. Pvt. Joseph Foster, 21, of Ogden, Utah, was struck with one round in the left hip. He leaned his left hand on a wooden cane and declined to talk about the shooting, Hasan or his four fellow soldiers from the 20th Engineer Battalion who were killed.

The first thing Foster did when he got home was kiss his wife and hug his kids. He tried to watch the news, but said he found it "annoying." "You don't want to relive it over and over," Foster said. He said he was eager to get back to work. "I'm a soldier. It's my job," he said. He was scheduled to go to Afghanistan in January, but it is unclear whether he will do so now.

His wife, Mandy, was asked if she wanted him to go. She said no. But she added, "I feel more confident that at least over there he can fire back."

Senior Army officials have said that the unremitting back-and-forth between the United States and war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan does not give troops the time they need to readjust.

"We have scientific studies that we've just completed that show that after a year in combat, it takes you about two years to get stress levels back to normal garrison levels," Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's chief of staff, said on CNN on Sunday. The strain is especially evident in the Army's suicide rate, which has increased three years in a row and is likely this year to exceed the 140 suicides in 2008, Casey said.

The war monuments are not the only change at Fort Hood. A bulldozer was churning up ground for a reflecting pond where troops would be able to spend a quiet moment. Army officials said that come Monday morning, the post's training ranges will be full of soldiers shooting guns and artillery cannons in preparation for their deployments.

Staff writer Ann Gerhart contributed to this report.

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