Commentary by M.D. Kittle for Watchdog.org. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
On Nov. 5, 2009, as Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan went about his murderous work of massacring 13 people and wounding 32 others. Some were families of fallen soldiers — many of whom lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq — were there for a field trip at Fort Hood, Texas.
The plan was to take in a day at an on-base flight simulator. Things quickly changed when Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, began his rampage against unarmed soldiers at a Fort Hood medical deployment center.
“They were afraid for their lives with their children,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, public affairs officer for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, a national bereavement group for loved ones of fallen military members. “Basically they were locked in an office and had to stay in there for several hours.”
Hasan last month was unanimously convicted on 13 charges of premeditated murder and 32 charges of attempted premeditated murder. He has since been sentenced to die.
Six soldiers from Wisconsin were among the killed and wounded. The dead included Sgt. Amy Krueger, of Kiel, who joined the service in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and served in Afghanistan, and Capt. Russell Seager of Mount Pleasant.
Also killed was Pvt. Francheska Velez. She was 21 and pregnant when Hasan shot her down. Her father, Juan Velez told the court through an interpreter, “That man (Hasan) did not just kill 13 people, he killed 15. He killed my grandson and he killed me, slowly,” CBS News reported.
Hasan, who represented himself, sounded unmoved by the victims’ testimony, only interjecting at one point to tell the judge he was hungry.
“Given that it’s almost one o’clock, I move we break early for lunch,” he said.
It’s safe to say the families locked in that room for hours at Fort Hood in November 2009 were terrorized. The dead and wounded victims of Hasan’s assault surely felt terror, even if many were trained to handle combat. And nearly four years later, it would seem Juan Valez remains terrorized.
Yet, the government classifies the Fort Hood attack as a “workplace violence” incident, precluding military awards and benefits to soldiers who were killed or wounded in the deadliest base shooting in U.S. military history.
More than 100 members of the House want to change that designation.
They’ve introduced the bipartisan Honoring the Fort Hood Heroes Act, which would declare the attack at the Texas military installation an act of terror. The bill would require the Army to award Purple Hearts for soldiers and Secretary of Defense Medals of Freedom for civilians to victims, and it would allow victims and their families to be eligible for “appropriate combat-related benefits.”
“This terrible tragedy still looms in the recent memory for many of us,” U.S. Rep.Tom Petri (R-Wisc.), co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement sent out a day after a military contractor is alleged to have shot and killed 12 people and himself at the historic Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a shame these soldiers — who were attacked by a self-proclaimed enemy of the United States — cannot receive the medals and benefits they deserve because of the way the incident is classified. It’s bureaucratic and political,” Petri added. “This is an attack where our men and women in uniform lost their lives and have lingering effects from their injuries.”
U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, co-author of the bill, said changing the designation is the right thing to do.
“The Fort Hood Heroes Act will make sure this attack is label (sic) as it should be, in turn ensuring these brave men and women get the help, benefits and honors they need and deserve,” Carter, chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement.
The Pentagon in the past has expressed concerns about classifying the attack as an act of terrorism due to Hasan’s ongoing trial.
Military service members and their families traditionally are eligible for awards and benefits when service members are killed or wounded in a combat zone.
“But the federal government set historic precedent when it awarded military victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks with Purple Hearts, as well as honoring civilian victims with the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom award. This precedent should be followed for the Fort Hood attack,” Petri’s statement declares.
The cost to taxpayers is not yet known. Petri’s and Carter’s offices couldn’t provide a figure, and because the bill, which is a companion bill to legislation introduced last week by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has yet to be reported out of committee. Until it is, the Congressional Budget Office will not have a fiscal estimate.
Neiberger-Miller also works with the National Veterans Legal Services Program, a group that assists veterans in applying for combat-related benefits.
“If a service member has injuries that are considered to have occurred through combat, they can get monthly compensation, tax-free, for life,” she said. “This is for people who were injured who cannot work again. This would be significant money.”
There could be an emotional cost to the Fort Hood Heroes Act perhaps not considered by the lawmakers.
Neiberger-Miller, whose brother was killed in the War in Iraq, said designations for special categories of military members killed or injured and their families have a way making those left out feel left behind.
“How do we support families dealing with grief and loss when deaths are treated differently?” she said. “Oftentimes families are hurt. Deaths stateside are treated differently than deaths in the war zone.”
TAPS doesn’t take positions on legislation, but Neiberger-Miller said society continues to grapple with the question of how best to honor military sacrifice in different theaters of service.
And what about the victims of the Naval Yard shootings? Were they victims of terrorism?
Petri believes the attack on Fort Hood deserves a fitting label.
“It’s only right that this be called what it was, an act of terrorism, and those heroes be rightly honored.”
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