FORT HOOD, Texas — Parents, spouses and children reverently approached the 6-foot-tall granite memorial Friday, some kneeling and wiping away tears as they gently touched a name etched on the stone – each belonging to one of the 13 people killed in the Fort Hood shooting rampage a year ago.
Many families of the 12 soldiers and one civilian who died Nov. 5, 2009, met for the first time at the anniversary memorial, hugging and weeping together.
“I wanted to come down here and see the place where she died and get a better understanding of what happened, and I think that’s helped,” said Philip Warman, of Havre De Grace, Md., who had never before been to the Texas Army post where his wife, Lt. Col. Juanita Warman, was killed as she prepared for deployment to Iraq.
“It’s been very difficult, and has taken the better part of last year to back to functioning,” he said.
Leila Hunt Willingham of McKinney called the memorial a good way to honor her brother and others who lost their lives that day. On Friday, she gently placed a 1987 penny – from the year her brother, Spc. Jason Dean “J.D.” Hunt, was born – on the memorial.
“He was incredibly selfless from the moment he was born. He was always giving gifts, and obviously he gave the ultimate gift last year,” Hunt Willingham said, her eyes welling with tears.
Later Friday, more than 1,000 soldiers, victims’ families and others gathered for a memorial ceremony that included a moment of silence and the playing of taps.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey told the crowd that during the past year, he visited two units that each had lost several soldiers in the shootings before they deployed. He said the units were an inspiration – as were soldiers such as Staff Sgt. Patrick Zeigler, who nearly died after being shot four times but learned to walk again and continues physical therapy.
Casey said those who died were bound by a spirit of service.
“We will never forget,” he said.
Earlier Friday, Casey and Army Secretary John McHugh presented awards to more than 50 soldiers and civilians whose actions “went above and beyond the call of duty.” Capt. John Gaffaney, who was fatally shot after he threw a chair at the gunman, received an award posthumously.
The crowd rose to its feet and applauded when medals were presented to Officer Kim Munley and Sgt. Mark Todd, the two civilian Fort Hood police officers who engaged in a gunbattle with the shooter, eventually wounding him. Munley was wounded by the gunman.
“It’s not about us. It’s about the families,” Todd said after the ceremony, adding that he thinks about the shooting every day.
Kerry Cahill – whose father, physician assistant Michael Cahill, was killed – hugged Staff Sgt. Zackary Filip, a combat medic who had recently returned from Afghanistan and helped about 20 wounded soldiers that day. Filip received a medal Friday.
“I wanted to meet the people who knew Dad … and to say `thank you,'” said Kerry Cahill of New Orleans.
One year ago, a gunman wearing an Army combat uniform shouted “Allahu Akbar!” – Arabic for “God is great!” – and opened fire in a crowded medical building where deploying soldiers get vaccines and other tests, witnesses say. He fired rapidly, pausing only to reload, shooting at soldiers hiding under desks and those fleeing the building, according to witnesses.
The gunman was identified by witnesses and authorities as Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist and American-born Muslim who was to deploy to Afghanistan the following month. Hasan, who was paralyzed from the chest down when he was shot that day, is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. His Article 32 hearing to determine if there’s enough evidence to send him to trial will resume later this month.
McHugh said the 12 soldiers and one civilian were taken away too soon.
“It’s a chapter in this Army that no matter how many tears may fall will never, ever be washed away and will be part of our history forever,” he said.