The Fallen at Fort Hood
Nov. 6, 2009
A 21-year-old Army private on her way from Iraq to Chicago for a leave after learning that she was pregnant with her first child. A 56-year-old psychiatric nurse for the San Diego County government who'd just spent three years persuading a review board for the National Guard to let him return to active duty, despite his hearing loss. A 29-year-old sergeant from rural Wisconsin who dropped her social work studies the week after 9/11 to enlist in the military. These are among the dozen soldiers and one civilian who were killed Thursday in a hail of gunfire at Fort Hood, Tex. Here are their stories, as told by their families and friends.
Profiles written by Amy Goldstein, Yamiche Alcindor, Peter Slevin, Ashley Surdin,
Spencer S. Hsu, Emma Brown, Christian Davenport and Dan Zak.
Michael G. Cahill had been a physician assistant for 22 years
Michael G. Cahill was a dedicated physician assistant, voracious reader and history buff who remembered the smallest details about the most remote places.
"The night before he died, we sat and watched the Mark Twain awards," said his wife, Joleen Cahill of Cameron, Tex. "And we just sat there laughing."
Cahill, 62, was among the 13 people killed in a shooting rampage Thursday at Fort Hood. He is survived by his wife; daughter Keely and son-in-law Lee; daughter Kerry; son James; and grandson Brody.
A retired chief warrant officer in the National Guard, Cahill had been a physician assistant for 22 years, working in remote rural clinics and veterans hospitals. For the past six years he had worked at Fort Hood as a contract civilian employee.
"He loved working with people," Joleen Cahill said.
Cahill, who was originally from Washington state, and his wife, from Montana, were four years from retiring.
Virginia psychologist L. Eduardo Caraveo never forgot humble beginnings
L. Eduardo Caraveo came to the U.S. as a young Mexican immigrant with little English and less money. But determination? He had that in heaps.
He graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso — making him the first in his family to graduate from college — and received a doctorate in psychology at the University of Arizona. He joined the Army, rose to the rank of major and eventually settled in Woodbridge, Va.
“He was a role model for me,” said his son, Eduardo, 31, a state prison correctional officer who lives in Tucson. “He wanted us to get the message that nothing was impossible.”
The elder Caraveo worked for more than 15 years for the federal Bureau of Prisons, a job that took him to Altoona, Pa., Victorville, Calif. and, eventually, the Washington area, where he was developing a treatment program for sex offenders, his son said. He also launched a business that offered anger-management counseling and “Yes, I Do” marriage seminars for couples who couldn’t afford individual therapy sessions, according to his Web site.
Caraveo never forgot his humble beginnings, said Rudy Valenzuela, a friend of 25 years who said the psychologist went out of his way to lend money to those who needed it — including Valenzuela during a period when he was struggling to keep his law practice afloat. He felt a special responsibility to help other Latinos, his son said.
Caraveo became a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army Reserve a decade ago to add to his federal service and improve his retirement benefits, Valenzuela said. He moved to Fort Hood just one day before the shooting to prepare for deployment to Afghanistan with a unit working to treat service members suffering from combat stress, said his son.
After his first marriage ended in divorce, Caraveo remarried five years ago, Valenzuela said, beginning a time he considered the happiest of his life. He lived with his wife, their 3-year-old son and her two daughters in a subdivision of new homes in Woodbridge.
A third son, Jose Armando Caraveo, 25, is a student at the University of Arizona.
“All he ever talked about and cared about was his family,” Valenzuela said. “He never liked to leave. He was happy being at home. But he understood what it meant to serve his country.”
Justin M. DeCrow had been in the Army for 13 years
At 32, Staff Sgt. Justin M. DeCrow had been in the Army for 13 years and -- with a wife, 13-year-old daughter and bothersome case of sleep apnea -- had decided it was time to become a civilian.
His mother, Rhonda Thompson, said Friday that DeCrow had returned over the summer from a year's deployment in South Korea to Evans, Ga., where he had built a house several years ago. His wife, Marikay -- whom he had known since the start of elementary school -- had a business there teaching children to ride horses. He had lined up a job as an Army contractor at nearby Fort Gordon in his specialty, training younger soldiers in satellite communications.
But last month, Thompson said, DeCrow was told to report to work at Fort Hood until the paperwork for his medical discharge came through.
After anxious hours of trying to call her son and sending him text messages, Thompson received a call early Friday from her sobbing daughter-in-law. Justin had been shot. No, he wasn't one of the people in the hospital.
Thompson last heard from her son Saturday. "Happy Halloween. I love you," his final text message to her said. She wrote back: "Same to you. Love you back."
John P. Gaffaney, 56, lobbied for 3 years to return to active duty
John P. Gaffaney already had retired from the Army as a major, already had won his 20-year service award in the San Diego county government as a supervisor in a program that helps elderly people through abuse and mental health crises.
But at 56, trained as a psychiatric nurse, he longed to return to active duty in the Army National Guard. For three years, a board kept rejecting him because he had a hearing problem, according to Ellen Schmeding, an administrator in the county agency for which he worked. Finally, she said, "he wore them down." He reported to Fort Hood to prepare for deployment on Nov. 1.
An ardent baseball fan with a wife and a grown son, Gaffaney "was very firm in his desire" to work in a war zone, Schmeding said, but understood the risks. Before he left, he had just taken a cherished vacation with his wife to Ireland and held a reunion with family and friends.
On Tuesday night, an Army chaplain told his wife he had been killed, Schmeding said. His colleagues are nursing "total disbelief," she said, "that something so random could occur to someone who was so important to us."
Spec. Frederick Greene, a Tennessee native, had nickname 'Silent Soldier'
Spec. Frederick Greene was a Tennessee native so quiet and laid-back that he earned the nickname "Silent Soldier" while stationed at Fort Hood preparing to go overseas.
He hoped to spend the months before his deployment to Afghanistan with his wife of less than two years. She had made arrangements to leave their home in Mountain City, Tenn., next week and move to Fort Hood until January, when Greene was to ship out.
Instead, Greene's wife and family are planning his burial in the northeast corner of the state where he grew up.
The 29-year-old enlisted in the Army six months after getting married because the military seemed like the best way forward, said Howard Nourse of Kentwood, Mich., who said he considered Greene a grandson. Rural Mountain City offered relatively few opportunities to advance, and he wanted to build a career, perhaps in engineering.
Greene's mother died when he was a boy, and he was raised by her twin sister Karen Nourse, and Karen's husband, Rob Nourse. Family members are leaning on their Christian faith as they grieve, said Howard Nourse, Rob's father.
"God is still in control," he said. "Even though we don't understand why something happens, He's still in control."
Jason Hunt transferred to Texas to be closer to his family
As a boy, Jason Hunt once had to wear silver caps on his front teeth. When he was too timid to smile, his sister, appealing to his love of video games, asked him to show his Ninja Turtle teeth.
"He was so embarrassed and such a shy boy," recalled his sister Leila Willingham, 30, of Frederick, Okla. "That was the only way I could make him smile."
In high school, Hunt refused to dissect a cat for a class assignment. He was so upset that his mother had to pick him up from school.
But Hunt's shy and sensitive side was transformed, his family said, when he joined the military. His already caring nature bloomed into something brave, selfless and fearless, they said. He hoped to save somebody's life someday.
That hope was cut short Thursday, when Hunt, 22, was killed in the mass shooting rampage at Fort Hood. He is survived by his wife, Jennifer Hunt; his mother, Gale Hunt; his father, Gary Hunt; his sister, Willingham; and a niece and nephew.
Hunt joined the Army a year after graduating from Tipton High School and served for 3 ½ years, including a tour in Iraq, where he celebrated his 21st birthday. While there, he reenlisted.
Willingham recalled her brother once likened his feelings for his military family to the love a parent feels for his children.
"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, who was stationed in Fort Stewart in Georgia after high school, transferred to Fort Hood to be closer to his family.
In August, he got married in Oklahoma City. "He had a blue tie and he was so happy to have his family there and to be becoming part of a family," his sister recalled through sobs.
Amy Krueger joined Army in aftermath of Sept. 11 attacks
In Kiel, Wis., a rural community of 3,200, feeling for the military runs so strong that, every Veterans Day, the high school invites local vets to lunch. So it was not entirely surprising that the week after Amy Krueger, a college student preparing to be a social worker, watched the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on television, she and her roommate walked into an Army recruiting office to enlist.
She felt she needed to be "an army of one," a story in the local Tri-County Times quoted Krueger as saying two years later after her first overseas deployment, to a 24-bed hospital in Afghanistan.
Her mother, Jerilyn Krueger, told her, "You can't take this on all by yourself," the story said.
"Just watch me," Krueger replied, according to her mother.
At 2 a.m. Friday, a pair of officers arrived at her mother's home with the news that Krueger, 29, now a sergeant with the Madison-based 467th Medical Detachment, had been killed in the Fort Hood massacre.
Dario Talerico, the principal of Kiel High School, said that the 1998 graduate had played basketball and soccer there, been on the swim team and belonged to the Spanish club.
Her mother, Talerico said, "was just very proud of Amy and what she was doing." Krueger was to have returned to Afghanistan in December.
Aaron Thomas Nemelka 'just wanted to serve his country'
PFC Aaron Thomas Nemelka had barely finished all his service training when he was killed by gunshots Thursday at Fort Hood. The 19-year-old had been in the Army for just over a year and had signed up for one of the most dangerous jobs in the service: bomb defusing.
His grandfather, Michael Nemelka Sr., said his grandson chose the job because he was tired of seeing American soldiers die and wanted to help save lives.
"I think his dad even tried to talk him out of it," Nemelka Sr. said, referring to the reservations of his son, Michael Jr. "But, people were being killed by roadside bombs, and he wanted to help in any way he could. He chose his job. He loved what he learned."
Aaron Nemelka was the youngest of four children and a 2008 graduate of West Jordan High School in West Jordan, Utah. An Eagle Scout, he joined the Army in October 2008 after consulting his grandfather, an ex-Marine, and his cousin, another serviceman who is currently deployed in Germany. He was looking forward to possibly making a career out of the Army, his grandfather said.
"He was very happy that the Army let him enlist," Michael Nemelka said. "He was fun-loving and bright. He liked to hang out with his family and his friends." In his free time, the young man also enjoyed skate boarding and bowling.
Sgt. Tammy Sower, a casualty assistance officer assigned to help the family make arrangements regarding Aaron's death, said he was most likely going to be deployed to the Middle East early next year. "He wanted to do the right thing," Sower said.
The Nemelka family learned of the death late Thursday night. On Friday afternoon, his grandfather recalled Aaron's excitement about his coming deployment. "He was all ready to ship out," Michael Sr. said. "He was excited as all heck. He was going to go do what he was trained to do. He just wanted to serve his country.
"I miss him. I loved him very much," he said.
Michael Pearson loved guitar improvisation
Pfc. Michael Pearson taught himself to play the piano and became a guitar virtuoso long before he joined the Army last year. "He had a little Jimi Hendrix in him," a relative said Friday as the family gathered to grieve in suburban Chicago.
Before the attack at Fort Hood, Pearson was preparing to deploy to 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 that Pearson would be safely elsewhere.
He died Thursday at age 21. A surgeon called with the 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 was seeking 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."
As a guitarist, improvisation was his joy: "He just sat in and just jammed away." On his Facebook page, Pearson typed the words to a song of his own. The relative choked up as he read them aloud:
I look only to the future for wisdom.
To rock back and forth in my wooden chair,
Grow out the beard of the earth,
And play my experience through sound.
Not always pleasant, but just as important,
For each note must represent love, pain, experience.
Everyone has a place in my story,
And someday I'll play a tune that represents you
And the role you played in my life.
Russell Seager joined the Army Reserve about four years ago
Russell Seager, a 51-year-old nurse practitioner from Mount Pleasant, Wis., was among those killed in Thursday's violence.
Seager, like others at Fort Hood, was preparing to deploy to Iraq, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. His uncle, Larry Seager, told the paper that he was eager to go abroad and had "pushed officials for deployment."
"He wanted to get in there and help the soldiers coming home and leaving," Larry Seager told the paper. "I still can't believe it. Such a foolish thing," he said of the shooting.
He learned of his nephew's death Friday morning when he received a call from his sister, the paper said.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Seager, who joined the Army Reserve about four years ago, was licensed as a registered nurse and advanced practice nurse prescriber. The paper reported that he worked at Zablocki VA Medical Center and was a teacher at Bryant and Stratton College in Milwaukee.
Larry Seager told the Journal Sentinel that his nephew worked at the center as a primary caregiver, providing mental health services to patients, and was pursuing a doctorate of education.
"I don't think he missed a year of school since he was 18," Larry Seager said of his nephew's love for education. "He just had to keep learning."
In August, Russell Seager left Milwaukee to begin preparations for deployment to Iraq, the Wisconsin State Journal said.
That month, the soldier was profiled by WUWM-Milwaukee Public Radio.
"I've always had a great deal of respect for the military and for service, and I just felt it was time that I stepped up and did it, actually," he said. "I mean, it sounds corny and patriotic, but when you talk to people that decide to do this, the feelings are similar."
Francheska Velez was pregnant and headed home
Francheska Velez was due home soon from Fort Hood.
The army private, stationed in Iraq, returned to Chicago to celebrate her 21st birthday last August. Back in Iraq, where she disarmed bombs, she learned she was pregnant, her family said, and arranged for maternity leave.
"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, attended Kelvyn Park High School and joined the army three years ago because she wanted to travel and make something of herself.
"She was the happiest person in the world," Arzuaga said.
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. She was just keeping strong. She was ready for anything."
Juanita Warman, 55, leaves behind 2 children, 6 grandchildren
Juanita Warman, 55, was a single mother who worked her way through the University of Pittsburgh, became a nurse and joined the military, where she worked as a physician assistant and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, said her sister, Margaret Yaggie.
She “had a calling and she was fulfilling it,” Yaggie said.
Warman, of Havre de Grace, Md., was working as a physician assistant at a Veterans Administration facility in Baltimore when she volunteered with a Maryland National Guard program to help reserve soldiers reintegrate into civilian life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She was especially interested in helping female veterans, said Lt. Col. Mike Gafney, who runs the program. It was a topic “that was very dear to her heart,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In addition to creating the training, she loved meeting with and helping women soldiers through the long and many times lonely path they had to face after coming back from the war.”
Warman had been deployed to Iraq, which gave her credibility with returning soldiers, said Arlene Gerson, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who worked with Warman.
“As opposed to someone standing up there, lecturing about what they learned from books, she was able to really talk about post traumatic stress disorder and how it can be treated,” Gerson said.
Gerson accompanied her on a trip to Fort Dix, N.J., where Warman spoke to returning veterans about the importance of addressing the issues that often arise as a part of reintegration. She told the soldiers “not to be ashamed of getting help because it’s there and important to get,” Gerson said.
“She talked about taking care of yourself so you can take care of the people around you and continue to serve your country,” Gerson said.
Warman was preparing for redeployment to Iraq this week, her sister said, and her thoughts were of her two daughters and six grandchildren.
In a last note, Warman wrote on her Facebook page, “I miss my girls and their beautiful children. It’s so nice to come to Facebook to see them grow up even if it’s just in photographs.” Still, Warman was excited to serve. “So much to do. So many lives to touch,” she wrote, “Just wish it didn’t take me away from home so much."
Kham Xiong was 'a superb role model to his peers'
Army PFC Kham Xiong, 23, came from a St. Paul, Minn., family with ties to military life that spanned hemispheres. His father, Chor Xiong, battled Communist insurgents in Laos during the Vietnam War, according to Minnesota Public Radio, and his younger brother Nelson is enlisted in the Marines.
In a phone interview, his eigth-grade teacher, Tim McGowan, recalled Xiong's positive energy and his commitment to supporting his family.
"Kham was just a person of sound character, and his greatest attribute was his ability to make everybody smile," said McGowan, now a principal at Community of Peace Academy, a St. Paul charter school from which Xiong graduated in 2004. "He was a superb role model to his peers and siblings and children."
Xiong was among the first killed at Fort Hood as he waited in line to get a flu shot and a vision test, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. Xiong was one of 11 children, a hard-working man who called home every night and who recently moved with his wife and three young children (ages 10 months to 4 years) to a home near the Texas military base, according to the Pioneer Press. He was expected to deploy to Afghanistan within the next two months.