On Tuesday, President Obama paid solemn tribute to the 13 service members who were killed at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, in a moving ceremony rich in military tradition that was attended by more than 15,000 fellow service members, friends, family and dignitaries. As is customary, the fallen soldiers' rifles were placed muzzle-down in their combat boots, with their helmets resting on top of the butt of the weapon. The memorials lined the front of the stage along with photos of each, which included 12 current members of the military and one retired member.
First lady Michelle Obama also attended the service on the eve of Veterans Day. The commander in chief traveled to the country's largest military installation, where last week officials allege that Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal M. Hasan opened fire with two handguns on fellow soldiers, firing more than 100 rounds and killing 13 and wounding 38 before a pair of civilian police officers felled him with four shots. CNN reported that eyewitnesses said Hasan appeared to be specifically targeting those in military uniform, avoiding shooting at civilians.
Backed by an enormous American flag, a somber Obama said, "We come together filled with sorrow for the 13 Americans that we have lost. With gratitude for the lives that they lead and a determination to honor them with the work we carry on. This is a time of war. And yet these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of this great American community. It is this fact that makes the tragedy even more painful and even more incomprehensible."
Obama said no words could soothe the pain of the families and loved ones left behind, but he reminded them that the work of the slain helped secure our nation's security and freedom. "Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that is their legacy," he said.
Obama then paid tribute to each of the fallen, naming them and describing their commitment to the armed forces and to their families. "These men and women came from all parts of the country. Some had long careers in the military," he said. "Some had signed up to serve in the shadow of 9/11. Some had known intense combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some cared for those that did. Their lives speak to the strength, the dignity and the decency of those who serve, and that is how they will be remembered." He also praised the selfless acts of those who scrambled to save their fellow wounded at Fort Hood.
"It may be hard to comprehend the twisted logic that led to this tragedy," he said. "But this much we do know — no faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor. And for what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice — in this world, and the next."
Amid the grief and anger at the actions of the alleged gunman, Obama took time during the 15-minute address to reiterate some of the themes of inclusiveness that helped win him the White House, stressing that we are a nation of many beliefs and backgrounds and that it is those values of respect and democratic ideals that we defend at home and abroad. "We know that Americans will always be found on the side of liberty and equality," he said solemnly. "That is who we are as a people."
The Obamas met with the families of each fallen soldiers — who ranged in age from 19 to 62 — prior to the president's comments and were scheduled to meet with wounded soldiers after the ceremony, which included a roll call of the names of the dead and a 21-gun salute. Fort Hood has lost more soldiers in Iraq (483) and Afghanistan (31) than any other U.S. military post, and Obama paid tribute at the end of the ceremony by placing his presidential coin in front of each individual memorial.
While investigators have not yet discussed a possible motive in the shooting, the focus has turned to Hasan's anxiety over his pending deployment as well as the potential stress of his position as a counselor to wounded soldiers returning from the fronts in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not believed that the attack was an act of terrorism, though ABC News reported that Hasan had numerous contacts with a top al Qaeda recruiter who operates a jihadist Web site out of Yemen that calls for all Muslims to wage war against the U.S.
According to The Washington Post, Hasan, 39, was "coherent" and conscious during a meeting with defense attorneys on Monday (November 9) at an Army hospital in San Antonio. No charges have been filed against Hasan in the incident, which is the worst mass shooting of its kind on a U.S. military base. The suspect in the rampage on the massive base that houses more than 70,000 soldiers and dependents reportedly refused to answer questions on Sunday and requested a lawyer.
People who know Hasan told ABC that the psychiatrist appeared to have grown more radical in his disapproval of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and that he often said he was a Muslim first and an American second. Asked if the president was concerned that the potential warning signs about Hasan were missed before the shooting and if the military should have concerns about Muslims serving in the U.S. armed forces, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said before the ceremony, "Obviously there are people ... of all faiths and all ethnicities serving with distinction and valor in our armed services today. ... The investigation is ongoing to figure out what would motivate an individual to carry out the type of act that this major carried out."