Survivors and families of the victims of Fort Hood shootings feel forgotten
They believe federal authorities have denied them benefits they deserved
As the trial of Nidal Hasan gets under way, they are reliving a host of emotions
For one widow, the trial offers a chance to finally move on
Shoua Her takes great pride in the history of military service in her husband’s family. His father, grandfather and two great uncles fought the Viet Cong alongside the CIA in what’s known as the “Secret War” in Laos.
Her husband, Kham See Xiong, arrived in the United States as a young refugee with his family. In 2008, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and readied for a combat tour in Afghanistan. Another man in the family would be defending America, the country that had given them a second chance at life after they fled their communist homeland.
But everything changed on a sunny November day in 2009 in Texas when an Army psychiatrist jumped up on a desk at Fort Hood, yelled “Allahu akbar!” and unleashed 100 rounds from two laser-sighted pistols. Pfc. Kham See Xiong was one of 13 people who were killed; another 32 were wounded.
Shoua Her coped with the tragedy as best as any wife possibly could. She, like the survivors and families of other victims of that day, took solace in the words of President Barack Obama.
“As commander-in-chief, there’s no greater honor but also no greater responsibility for me than to make sure that the extraordinary men and women in uniform are properly cared for,” Obama said after the shootings.
But as the months wore on and the name of suspect Nidal Malik Hasan faded from headlines, their grief was compounded by other emotions stemming from the unusual circumstances of this case. The suspect was a U.S. Army major. Yet he said he acted to defend America’s enemies. The killings occurred on the largest Army base in America. Yet the victims considered it a battleground on that day.
They learned that authorities had failed to respond to red flags about Hasan’s Islamist beliefs. As the trial was delayed by legal wrangling – including Hasan’s decision to represent himself, and disagreement over whether he could defy military regulations and wear a full-length beard in court – many of the Fort Hood victims began to believe military and federal authorities were neglecting their needs.
The victims had sought closure with Hasan’s court-martial, which began last Tuesday. But as they prepared to face the self-admitted killer, their nearly four-year ordeal festered like an open wound. They believe they’ve paid not just an emotional price but a financial one, as well.
They were reliving not just their sorrow but a deep sense of neglect, even betrayal, by their own government.
Xiong’s father, Chor Xiong, felt so abandoned that he penned a letter to a Defense Department official.
“The government makes so many promises, but cannot keep them. All we are asking for is some assistance and for justice to be served,” he wrote. “I have lost all hopes since his death.”
Some survivors have already testified in court about what they witnessed that day. Family members of those who died are expected to have their say as each is allowed to make a victim impact statement.
Kham See Xiong’s widow will represent the Xiong family.
“I am anxious. I am overwhelmed. I am scared at the same time,” she says.
She wants the world to know what it has been like to raise three children on her own. And what it has been like for a proud military family to feel let down by that same military.
Anger and disappointment
Shoua Her began dating Kham See Xiong in the eighth grade in St. Paul, Minnesota, home to a large community of ethnic Hmongs from Laos. She loved everything about him, especially his humor. She never dated anyone else and in 2004, after they graduated from Community of Peace Academy, they were married.
Xiong enlisted in the Army – two of his brothers are also in the military – and in the summer of 2009 moved his wife and three little children to Fort Hood, where they lived in military housing off post. Xiong’s unit was deploying to Afghanistan and he was standing in line to get his vaccinations and medical checks on November 5, 2009.
The family had no cable television at home. His wife was outside playing with their kids when she got word of the shootings from a neighbor. She frantically texted her husband but got no reply. She knew something terrible had happened when two Army personnel showed up at her door at 3 in the morning.
Everything after that is a blur in her mind.
She moved back to St. Paul a week later; her youngest son was only 10 months old when his father was gunned down.
She tells her kids stories about their father. How he liked to fish for white bass and walleye in nearby rivers and lakes. One time, he was so excited about going fishing that he forgot he left his tackle box on the roof of the car. Husband and wife laughed when they pulled out onto the street and the tackle box went flying.
She tells her kids that Daddy is now an angel in heaven. One day, they will be reunited. She forces herself to not dwell on the tragedy.
“I try not to think of it all the time. I just want to focus on my kids.”
But for the Xiongs and the other Fort Hood survivors and families, it wasn’t just about the grief. Anger and disappointment set in as the controversy surrounding Hasan kept growing.
Terrorism or workplace violence?
From the beginning, many people viewed the Fort Hood massacre as an act of terror. It was the worst mass shooting to ever take place on a military base in America.
Hasan has said in court hearings that he considers himself a mujahid, or warrior of Islam, and that he shot the soldiers to defend the Taliban. The FBI said he had communicated via e-mails with Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American radical cleric killed by a U.S. drone attack in 2011.
But the Defense Department classified the Fort Hood shootings as workplace violence, no different than a mentally ill employee randomly opening fire in an office. It was salt in the wounds of the victims.
“I don’t know why they would classify it as that,” Xiong’s widow said. It was so clear to her that it was a premeditated act of violence perpetrated by someone who knew exactly what he was doing.
Because the Defense Department did not call it terrorism, the soldiers killed and injured that day were disqualified from receiving combat-related benefits and Purple Hearts – the medals awarded to service members wounded or killed in enemy action.
For recipients and their families, the Purple Heart can mean speedier and cheaper medical services, free tuition at some universities and preferential treatment for many federal and state jobs.
A bill sponsored by six Republican lawmakers that would afford these benefits to the Fort Hood victims is before the House Armed Services Committee.
Those who were wounded that day still face serious medical issues. Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning has two bullets in him. Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford lost an eye. Kimberly Munley, the civilian Defense Department police officer who was the first person to return fire on Hasan, can no longer work in law enforcement because of her physical injuries. She and others are suffering from anxiety and post-traumatic stress. One survivor, Staff Sgt. Josh Berry, committed suicide on February 13.
The Defense Department has argued that awarding Purple Hearts would indirectly brand Hasan a terrorist and make it tougher to conduct a fair death-penalty trial.
DoD spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson would not comment further on the case but issued this statement Friday:
“The Department of Defense is committed to the integrity of the ongoing court martial proceedings of Major Nidal Hasan and for that reason will not at this time further characterize the incident. Major Hassan has been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder, and 32 counts of attempted murder. As with all pending Uniform Code of Military Justice matters, the accused is innocent until proven guilty.”
Manning, who survived six bullets during Hasan’s rampage, says it’s a disgrace for the military to call the tragedy workplace violence. A civil lawsuit filed last November seeking damages on behalf of 83 Fort Hood survivors and victims’ families alleges the government has treated them in a manner “substantially inferior to the treatment given other terror casualties.”
In the case of Manning, the lawsuit alleges that “because his injuries have been deemed workplace violence-related, he has lost approximately $40,000 in compensation, as well as significant retirement benefits.”
“Unfortunately, I am not alone in my experience,” Manning wrote in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post. “I have watched other victims and their families be denied disability benefits and treated indifferently by the Army. This has left many families suffering not just physical and emotional wounds, but financial ones as well.”
The victims believe the government bent over backwards to ensure fairness for Hasan, a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent.
They also believe that government agencies made mistakes with Hasan.
The civil lawsuit alleges the Army awarded Hasan a fellowship he did not earn, sanitized and falsified his Officer Evaluation Reports to hide his Islamist ideology and ignored constant violations of Army regulations. It also says the Army purged peer reports that Hasan was a “ticking time bomb,” promoted him to major and terminated an investigation into his ties with al-Awlaki and al Qaeda.
A 2011 Senate committee report concluded that the Fort Hood tragedy could have been prevented.
“The Department of Defense and the FBI collectively had sufficient information to have detected Major Hasan’s radicalization to violent Islamist extremism, but they failed to act effectively on the many red flags signaling that he had become a potential threat,” said Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.
Reed Rubenstein, who represents the Fort Hood victims in the civil case, said the government has never admitted any wrongdoing; it has never apologized to the victims.
“The victims have been sitting in purgatory for four years,” he said. “The Army knew whose side Hasan was on years ago. And it wasn’t our side.”
‘A stab to my husband’
Now 27, Shoua Her is planning to return to Fort Hood and sit in a courtroom not far from the Soldier Readiness Processing Center where her husband was gunned down. She will take her sister with her for support. But mostly, she will need inner steel.
She wants to learn all the grim details of that day. She needs something to help her move on.
She feels the military failed her husband and his close-knit family. Her father-in-law, Chor Xiong, lost his job in the recession and then his house in a foreclosure. His family gave so much for America, he says. He wants the government to help them in their hour of need.
“We would appreciate it if (the government) can take care of us much better since we have been so faithful and loyal in serving and protecting this country through many generations,” Chor Xiong wrote in the letter he sent to a defense official. “All we are asking for is some assistance and for justice to be served.”
His daughter-in-law is working part time, trying to earn a degree in social work and raising three kids.
“I’m disappointed the government failed our military personnel,” she said. “It felt like a stab to my husband and the rest.”
She doesn’t know how she will react when she sees Hasan in the courtroom. Or what she will say when she finally gets her turn to speak.
But she is eager for the trial to be over. Maybe then, she won’t have to be reminded regularly of the tragedy that took place at Fort Hood. Maybe then, she will be able to let go.