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An unseen, personal battle at the State of the Union

By Lisa Desjardins, CNN
updated 5:58 PM EST, Wed January 29, 2014
Everyone sees the President, the VIPs, the robes and the brass. But CNN went in search of the unseen guests, the everyday Americans in the balconies for the State of the Union speech. Members of Congress can invite one guest each. These are some of the people they chose. We lead with <strong>Matt Cooke.</strong> During the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Cooke threw himself between attacker Nidal Hasan and a fellow soldier and was shot five times himself. A shy man who works to prevent military suicides, he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and sat near a House chamber door during the State of the Union in case of a panic attack. He said he attended the speech to fight for Fort Hood families and their push that the 2009 attack be considered a terrorist act. Everyone sees the President, the VIPs, the robes and the brass. But CNN went in search of the unseen guests, the everyday Americans in the balconies for the State of the Union speech. Members of Congress can invite one guest each. These are some of the people they chose. We lead with Matt Cooke. During the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Cooke threw himself between attacker Nidal Hasan and a fellow soldier and was shot five times himself. A shy man who works to prevent military suicides, he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and sat near a House chamber door during the State of the Union in case of a panic attack. He said he attended the speech to fight for Fort Hood families and their push that the 2009 attack be considered a terrorist act.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Veteran Matt Cooke, a survivor of the Fort Hood massacre, attends State of the Union
  • He suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and wonders if Congress cares
  • Fort Hood hero just wants to get through the day
  • Cooke wants Fort Hood to be identified as an act of terrorism

Washington (CNN) -- It was a crowning achievement, but he wasn't sure that he wanted to be there. He wasn't sure he could make it through the speech without running out of the House chamber in panic. And he didn't know how many of his country's leaders cared.

Matt Cooke wore his camouflage combat uniform, surrounded by lawmakers, innovators and a few celebrities, and he stepped into a room that would hold the world's greatest concentration of power per square inch for an hour or so.

But the everyday hero just wanted to get through the State of the Union on Tuesday night. His seat was next to the door, just in case.

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The much-coveted invitation came because of his heroism on November 5, 2009, when he stopped by the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at the sprawling Army base at Fort Hood, Texas.

Moments after military psychiatrist Nidal Hasan opened fire, Cooke threw himself on top of another soldier, likely saving that man's life but taking five bullets himself.

His wounds still affect him. His eyesight may deteriorate for the rest of his life.

But as Cooke looked out from the House chamber balcony Tuesday night, the biggest potential issues were his mind and fears.

"I don't like being by myself," he said earlier before the event, pausing. "I don't trust, it's hard for me to trust people now."

Cooke was honored to be at the Capitol, of course. But logistics dictated that the shy, blue-eyed veteran had to sit with strangers. (Each member of Congress got one ticket.) And he didn't like that.

Cooke needs to be around people he knows. And after he survived the massacre in the middle of a U.S. Army base, he has a hard time trusting security anywhere.

The increased measures at the Capitol actually added to those concerns, raising the idea that this place was especially threatened.

But the unassuming man came anyway, battling his post-traumatic stress disorder-instincts out of gratitude to his hometown congressman, Republican Robert Pittenger of North Carolina, and to push for what he believes is long overdue recognition for the victims of Fort Hood.

"The Department of Defense says it was workplace violence," Cooke relayed hours before the State of the Union, sitting on a window bench tucked into a House office building stairway. "It was a terrorist act ... to me, it seems they're trying to cover it up, almost as if it never happened the way it did."

There are multiple issues here. Under the "workplace violence" designation, benefits are lower than if the attack were considered terrorism or part of an active conflict. Victims and families face lower disabled income or death benefits. Thirteen people were killed at Fort Hood.

A softer Republican side in response to Obama

Cooke spoke with determination on this.

"It's not about the money for me. It has nothing to do with the money," he said.

He wants the families to be recognized, for victims to be able to receive purple hearts for their wounds and be afforded all honors appropriate to that at a military burial.

But Cooke and his family believe the vast majority of Americans don't know about their continued battle. And that Congress is happy to move on.

"There is a bill, H.R. 3111, to declare Fort Hood a terrorist act, but Congress ...," he shakes his head. "September Eleventh at the Pentagon was a terrorist attack, but this, no."

Hasan was convicted last August in a military court of murder and attempted murder. A jury recommended a death sentence. Thirteen people were killed at Fort Hood.

A U.S.-born citizen of Palestinian descent who was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan, Hasan admitted to targeting soldiers. He said at one point that he wanted to protect the Taliban and its leaders from the U.S. military.

Comprehensive coverage: State of the Union

Investigations after the massacre found he had been communicating via e-mail with Anwar al-Awlaki, an Yemeni-American radical cleric killed by a U.S. drone attack in 2011.

Cooke's foot taps as he talks about it, but otherwise his bearing was deeply calm. Almost tired.

His injuries rewrote his life. A marriage failed. He is no longer allowed to drive. And he lives with his mom, Diane Frappier, and stepdad, Jerry Frappier. The couple sometimes can't get the 34-year-old to leave his room.

"Before (coming to Washington), he spent three days in his bedroom," Diane Frappier confided. "He was really nervous."

That bedroom is a safe place, he thinks. The Capitol is not.

To help, Diane and Jerry made the road trip with their son. They stood next to him during interviews. Walked beside him down Capitol Hill's hard marble hallways.

For Diane, the trip is a part of her son's recovery and his mission now.

"I think it's time for some of his story to come out," said Diane, who is as feisty and confident as her son is humble and careful.

This is the first time Matt Cooke has ever heard a State of the Union address.

But frankly the speech was not his main interest.

He was at the Capitol to represent people who served the military, suffered at the hands of a gunman and who now feel overlooked.

When asked what he hopes for himself, the 13-year veteran gave an answer of recovery.

"I don't know. Right now, I'm hoping for today," he said.

And, it turns out, the day was good.

In the teeming House chamber, Cooke saw the unexpected -- the face of fellow Fort Hood survivor Alonzo Lunsford, just a few seats away.

Cooke knew his friend was in town, but not where he'd be during the speech.

The room felt better. He made it. He didn't need to run. And he could listen as the President and Congress honored another surviving soldier -- Sgt. Cory Remsburg.

High up in the balcony, off camera, Matt Cooke soaked in the wave of cheers.

"It was a pretty good night," he said.

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