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At Fort Hood: sounds of war, memories of a massacre

From Charley Keyes, CNN Senior Producer
Maj. Nidal Hasan is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November.
Maj. Nidal Hasan is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, in November.
  • A military hearing is underway at Fort Hood for the suspect in last year's shootings on the base
  • A prosecution parade of witnesses began last week
  • Most of the shooting victims were preparing for Iraq or Afghanistan when they were hit

Fort Hood, Texas (CNN) -- The distant rumble of big guns on Fort Hood's artillery range rattles the ceiling tiles in the small military courtroom.

But the sounds of war training don't interrupt the intensity inside the military hearing as dozens of witnesses here recal that day last November when 13 people were shot to death and 32 wounded on the base in central Texas.

Training with Paladin howitzers is part of everyday life at Fort Hood, the country's largest Army base. Most of the shooting victims were preparing to ship out to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

But nothing prepared them for what happened to them at home -- dodging bullets as a gunman cut down their buddies.

The prosecution put up more than two dozen witnesses in the first three full days of the Article 32 hearing. Prosecutors have set aside two more weeks, and scores more witnesses are expected. The Article 32 hearing will reconvene in November for defense attorneys to make their case. Then an Army colonel, -- the Investigating officer presiding over this hearing -- will decide if there is enough evidence to push the case along toward a court martial with a possible penalty of death upon conviction.

During live video testimony from Afghanistan, fighter jets roared overhead as soldiers described how their safe and secure base suddenly became a bloody battleground.

Capt. Melissa Kale was speaking from Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Friday. But her thoughts were back at Fort Hood trying to get a wounded buddy out of the line of fire.

"I was unable to pull her. She didn't move. I had to leave her there," Kale said, crying.

Many of the victims are haunted by their memories, with multiple accounts of hearing a scream of "Allahu Akbar" -- Arabic for "God is great" -- before the fast firing of a handgun, a laser-sight flickering across faces, signaling who might be next to fall.

"It was a nightmare that reoccurs every day," said Spc. Megan Martin, who also spoke via video-link from Afghanistan. She rejected any thought of trying to postpone her deployment just a few weeks after the shooting. "I wanted to carry out the mission as my fellow soldiers would have wanted me to." Martin said.

During the shooting, some tried to fight back, others pretended to be dead or tried to hide. There were multiple accounts of one man trying to rush the gunman, holding a chair above his head, only to be cut down at close range.

"You can't stay here and die," Spc. Logan Burnett said he told people trying to hide from the bullets.

He told how he tried to knock down the gunman with a folding table.

"I turned to throw it at the shooter. At that point I was hit in the hip," Burnett said Friday. He was shot two more times.

The man accused of the attacks, Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, is wheeled into the courtroom each morning by Army police wearing blue uniforms, their holsters empty. Hasan is in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed from being shot four times by police who rushed to the shooting scene.

Video: Emotional testimony at hearing
Video: 2009: Retracing Hasan's trail

Hasan sits impassively, wearing the same Army fatigues and high-lace-up combat boots as the judge and most of the lawyers. But Hasan is easy to spot on the far left of the defense table, wearing a fleece watch-cap pulled low in the back, over his ears, and almost down to his thick eyebrows in front. Some days he complains of the cold and the guards carry an Army blanket to drape over his shoulders.

At the start of proceedings Friday he gave a quick grin to one of his defense lawyers but then sat expressionless. He writes on a legal pad, and occasionally braces his arms on the arms of the wheelchair and pushes his body up to readjust his position.

The courtroom is paneled with dark wood. There are only 45 spectator seats and many were empty on Friday. There is tight security with journalists selected by lottery to be able to attend in person. Other journalists can see the proceedings in a viewing room with a problem-plagued video feed provided by the Army in in a temporary press center set up 200 yards away.

The defense tried unsuccessfully to have the hearing closed to the public or postponed. Still untouched is any discussion of motive. Hasan's lawyers have been asking many of the witnesses whether they thought the firing was random or targeted. The presiding officer, Col. James Pohl, said even he found that confusing.

"I just don't know what you mean by 'random,'" Pohl said.

One Friday witness, because of his injuries, was unable to raise his right arm when he took the oath. He said the shot felt like he'd been hit by a baseball bat in the neck.

Witness after witness told how they still carry bullets in their bodies, how they must face additional operations or how their physical therapy continues, how they may go to psychological counseling.

The prosecution has two more weeks to present evidence. Then the court will recess as Fort Hood marks one year since the shootings.

The base is planning a variety of activities that week, including a private event for families of the victims, and an awards ceremony to honor members of the military and civilians who performed with exceptional courage that day.

The following week, if more testimony is waiting, the hearing will resume.