By Ann Gerhart
washington post staff writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Each blow against America has seemed unimaginable: When 220 soldiers died in the shattered Beirut barracks. When the fertilizer bombs blew apart a federal building and its workforce in Oklahoma City. When the hijackers brought down shining twin towers and more than 3,000 lives.
Each time, the president has stepped from the wings to face a sea of his citizens, shocked, angry and suffused with grief.
On Tuesday, that heavy task fell to President Obama. At a memorial service five days after the largest mass killing on a U.S. military base, he reached for words of sorrow and solace, then summoned determination.
"Neither this country, nor the values that we were founded upon, could exist without men and women like these 13 Americans" who died in a hail of bullets, Obama said. "Their life's work is our security and the freedom that we too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- that is their legacy."
He faced a crowd of several thousand soldiers dressed in desert camouflage fatigues and dusty combat boots. Their black berets formed a rippling acre of funereal bunting under a blue sky. The soldiers are practiced at this ritual; 545 from Fort Hood have died in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, so many that new granite tablets keep being added at each company's memorial.
Yet those being mourned Tuesday, as the president noted, "were killed here, on American soil. . . . This is the fact that makes the tragedy even more painful, even more incomprehensible."
What made it unimaginable, Obama left unsaid: The man accused is one of the Army's own, a major, a psychiatrist, scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan and to help those buckling under the brutality of war. That, said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's chief of staff, was "a kick in the gut." Obama did not mention Nidal Hasan by name.Honoring the dead
Many of the dead and wounded also were warrior therapists, called to treat emotional wounds. Obama eulogized each fallen soldier individually.
He spoke of the Eagle Scout who decided to defuse bombs, and the guitar player who could make up songs on the spot, the retired veteran who returned as a physician's assistant and came back to work right after a heart attack, and the immigrants, a Mexican, a Thai, one middle-aged, one young, who saw opportunity in volunteer military service.
Casey noted they were "newlyweds, single moms, immigrants, teenagers and 50-somethings -- all bound together" by the common desire to serve the country. Among them, they had 19 children, and one on the way.
Their family members sat in the front rows, their faces a tableau of the most personal grief, hands twisting hands, heads bowed or rigidly straight. Near them were the soldiers who had survived, some on crutches, some in wheelchairs. Several remain hospitalized around the region.
Farther back were Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and the state's two Republican senators, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison. From the Pentagon came Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Casey.
The service was open to the public, and the mourners began coming several hours early.
Companies marched in formation to the large grassy field, carrying their flags. Army wives lowered babies off their hips to go through metal detectors, then swooped them up again. The ones whose husbands are deployed came together, in twos and threes, passing around communal bags of animal crackers. The ones whose husbands were still in garrison came glued to their sides. The couples dotted the field, arms wrapped tightly around each other's waists.
There were flashes of sardonic wit. An officer told some staff sergeants guarding a visitor entrance, "If anybody comes to you and says he's a Killeen VIP," referencing the Texas town that sprawls around the post, "No. 1, he's probably not, and No. 2, he's certainly not."
Everywhere were signs of what Casey calls resilience, the Army's sturdy ability to ignore the surreal and just hup two. A little boy wandered over and banged away on the insta-walls of the open-air memorial ground. The same steel canisters that create military fortresses against insurgents overseas now hastily served as a fortress for a president and a shattered community. But they did make a snappy percussive sound in the hands of a kid.A final salute
Samuel Fleming Jr., who lives in Killeen, said he showed up "to reflect, to mourn with them a little bit today."
"You're losing people who had their whole lives ahead of them. They were randomly gunned down," Fleming, 45, said as he waited in the parking lot of the Ghost Warrior Lanes bowling alley. "That hurts."
Heather Guerra, 22, drove an hour from Moffat, Tex., and sat on a curb in the bright sun with her infant son Jeremiah on her knees. She saw the attack as a "mini-9/11" and said her presence was "the least I can do."
The picnic atmosphere ended abruptly when a bagpiper began his keening.
The Army has perfected a traditional ceremony, piercing in its simplicity -- a single bugler, a three-gun salute, the final roll call, a powerful and painful finish. Its intention is to end the period of shock and denial and to summon the troops back to their mission.
The president was delivering his first eulogy after the tragedy. Two weeks earlier, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, he had stood silently in the middle of a cold night to salute the return home of soldiers killed in a bloody week in Afghanistan.
"So we say goodbye to those who now belong to eternity," Obama said Tuesday. "We press ahead in pursuit of the peace that guided their service. May God bless the memory of those we lost. And may God bless the United States of America."
As the final notes of taps faded away, the president, joined by his wife, Michelle, stood and walked along the 13 memorials at the stage, pausing to take in the photographs, the dog tags, the empty boots and the M-16s topped by helmets. Obama placed a commander-in-chief coin at each. They then left to meet the wounded, and the family, friends and fellow soldiers began the long, sad procession.