By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 10, 2009 3:46 PM
FORT HOOD, Tex. -- President Obama told a sea of mourners Tuesday that the lives of 13 people who died at the hands of a gunman here last week affirm the nation's "core values" in a time of war and selfishness.
"In an age of selfishness, they embody responsibility," Obama said at a memorial service attended by several thousand soldiers and civilians. "In an era of division, they call upon us to come together. In a time of cynicism, they remind us of who we are as Americans."
Obama said a "twisted logic" drove the accused gunman, Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, to open fire inside a Fort Hood medical facility. "No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts. No just and loving god looks upon them with favor."
"For what he has done," Obama said, "we know that the killer will be met with justice -- in this world, and the next."
In front of the dais as Obama spoke were 13 pairs of combat boots, and in front of each pair was a photo of one of the victims. Relatives of the dead walked down stone stairs, many red-eyed, some gripping one another's arms. Many wore ribbons.
Obama mentioned each one in turn, saying a word about service and the families left behind. Pfc. Michael Pearson "could create songs on the spot." Staff Sgt. Justin DeCrow was "an optimist, a mentor and a loving husband and father."
"Their lives speak to the strength, the dignity, the decency of those who serve," Obama said, "and that's how they will be remembered."
For Obama, who flew to Texas on the eve of Veterans Day to pay his respects after what one mourner called a "mini-9/11," the speech was a chance to convey a measure of gratitude for the military's sacrifice at a time when the country is fighting two unpopular wars on foreign soil.
In the audience on the nation's largest military base were Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and the state's two Republican senators. Also, some of the nation's senior military brass, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, who also spoke, said the biggest trait the victims had in common was their decision to volunteer to serve their country. He said it is easier to accept casualties on foreign soil, where Fort Hood has lost 545 soldiers in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
"It was a kick in the gut," Army Chief of Staff George W. Casey Jr. said. He said the responses to the shooting have been "uplifting."
Hasan, who was shot four times by civilian police, is hospitalized in custody and in stable condition.
Hours before the memorial service, hundreds of ordinary guests drove slowly through the gates in sedans and pickup trucks, first in ones and twos, then in a serpentine line dozens of cars long. They said they came to mourn the dead, embrace the living and find a measure of peace for themselves.
Samuel Fleming Jr., who lives in nearby 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 a post bowling alley called Ghost Warrior Lanes. "That hurts. They were the best of the best."
A sport-utility vehicle with a yellow Support the Troops sticker pulled into the lot near a family car with a Texas license plate that said Former POW. A sticker on another vehicle said, "I have a loved one who gave their life for freedom."
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 called the sudden attack a "mini-9/11" and said her presence today was "the least I can do."
"None of the people deserved what they got," said Guerra, who believes U.S. authorities should have known that Hasan was a potential threat. "There's just too many red flags. Too many."
Cheryl Rush, 34 and an Iraq war veteran, arrived four hours before the scheduled start at 1 p.m. local time. She is still asking herself why Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, allegedly opened fire, and why here.
"Maybe it is stressful to be a Muslim in this society, but why kill so many people?" Rush asked. "It was totally unnecessary and it breaks my heart."
"We go to Iraq, we're safe and sound, we're all in one piece, and we have to deal with something like this at our post," Rush said. "It was totally unexpected."
Rush and her friend Andrea Nunez, 38, whose husband is a supervisor on Fort Hood's civilian police force, said they feel a sense of solidarity throughout the heavily military community on the post and nearby.
Neither of them think anyone could have stopped the rampage before it began. Fleming agreed.
"He snapped. It could happen. You listen to people cry and complain about doing hurtful things to other people, it gets to you after a while," Fleming said in a soft voice. But the shooting that left 13 dead and more than 38 wounded? That was unpredictable.
"Nobody would think he would take it out on innocent people. They were innocent and he treated them like murderers," Fleming, an aspiring youth counselor in Killeen, said. "He just lost it."
Some people arriving on the post Saturday said they came for the soldiers -- and also to see Obama, who was greeted with some cheers. Oscar Hernandez, 55, a retired soldier who brought his camera, was shopping at the Fort Hood PX when the shooting started.
"It shocked us. I guess it's just a matter of time before somebody snaps," he said as he hurried to a shuttle bus for the ride to the memorial service, set to take place behind a protective wall of steel containers stacked high. "A lot of the soldiers just bottle up their emotions."
Ilda Caudillo, 26, a substitute teacher, said she had come in part to see the president. Caudillo's husband is stationed in Iraq. She told him he was lucky to be in a war zone last Thursday instead of on the base.
"What if he had been the one [killed]?" Caudillo asked. "We don't know if we're safe here."
During the service, Obama said the life's work of the fallen "is our security, and the freedom that we too often take for granted."
"Neither this country," he said, "nor the values that we were founded upon, could exist without men and women like these 13 Americans. And that is why we must pay tribute to their stories."
"So we say goodbye to those who now belong to eternity," Obama said. "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.
After he spoke, a female soldier sang "Amazing Grace."