Fort Hood Purple Heart ceremony: ‘Today is about victory’

Purple Heart recipients Pfc. James Armstrong, left, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Royal hug as they look at pictures of co-workers who were killed in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, prior to a ceremony, Friday, April 10, 2015, at Fort Hood, Texas. Survivors and family members of those killed during the attack were awarded medals: a Purple Heart for military personnel and Defense of Freedom Medals for civilians. (AP Photo/Rodolfo Gonzalez, Pool)
Purple Heart recipients Pfc. James Armstrong, left, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Royal hug as they look at pictures of co-workers who were killed in the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, prior to a ceremony, Friday, April 10, 2015, at Fort Hood, Texas. Survivors and family members of those killed during the attack were awarded medals: a Purple Heart for military personnel and Defense of Freedom Medals for civilians. (AP Photo/Rodolfo Gonzalez, Pool)

FORT HOOD, Texas (KXAN) — The wait was long and, at times, trying. As the 2009 attack on Fort Hood fell further and further into the past, Staff Sgt. Eric Jackson began to doubt he would ever see the day come.

“It is kind of hard not to be bitter,” he said. “You wonder where is the respect? Where is the recognition? Where is the support?”

On Friday the wait ended and the recognition arrived.

Jackson was one of 30 wounded soldiers to be awarded a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in the shooting. The families of 12 soldiers killed that day also received the Purple Heart, the oldest medal still awarded to military personnel. Defense of Freedom medals were awarded to civilian officer Kimberly Munley, she helped stop gunman Nidal Hasan, and the family of Michael Cahill, a civilian killed in the shooting.

“You are not a victim. You are still here. Nothing has defeated you. Today is about victory,” said Retired Gen. Robert Cone to survivors during a ceremony on the Army post Friday morning.

The pictures of the 13 people who died set near the spot where medals were pinned to the chest of survivors. Family members of the fallen took group photos around the picture frame of their soldier. Before the ceremony began, Juan Velez, father of PFC Francheska Velez, stood before his daughter’s picture before slowly crouching in front of it and eventually placing a kiss on his daughter’s forehead. Francheska was pregnant at the time of her death.

“It is priceless,” said Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford. “It is a medal that shows we have given blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice for this uniform.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn were at the ceremony on Friday.

“Today is a celebration of those that wear the uniform,” Abbott said. “We are a grateful nation and we are a grateful state.”

Award recipients displayed a variety of emotions after receiving their awards. Cpt. Dorothy Carskadon said she has chosen to be “better, not bitter,” adding it is an honor to wear the medal. Christopher Royal, who started the group 32 Still Standing for survivors, said the medal is something tangible to represent what he soldiers faced the day of the attack.

“We can pick up the pieces knowing we are victors,” said Royal. “It’s all about healing, and all of us coming together as one.”

But frustration at a lack of accompanying benefits was also voiced by victims as well as a delegation of Texas congressman. While speaking to reporters, Munley and Cahill’s daughter Kerry both said the job of awarding the Fort Hood victims is not done. So far victims have not received the medical, educational, and other benefits typically tied to the Purple Heart.

“We are going to keep climbing these mountains and busting down these doors,” said Munley. “These soldiers will get what they deserve.”

Pictures of 13 soldiers who died in the attack sit behind the podium. Their families will be here to accept Purple Heart medals. (Chris Sadeghi/KXAN)
Pictures of 13 soldiers who died in the attack sit behind the podium. Their families will be here to accept Purple Heart medals. (Chris Sadeghi/KXAN)

Cruz, Cornyn, and Representatives John Carter, Roger Williams, and Michael McCaul, all Texas congressmen largely credited with helping get the medals to Fort Hood, vowed to also deliver the benefits.

“It shouldn’t have taken 5 years for this to happen,” said Cruz. “What occurred on that day was not workplace violence, it was radical Islamic terrorism.”

The Army classified the shooting as “Workplace Violence,” but the congressman along with other critics of the classification point to Hasan’s communication with terrorist groups as reason to consider the shooting a terrorist attack. Cruz said he has received assurance from the Army that benefits issue for victims will be resolved. A long-delayed criminal trial for Hasan was also blamed in part for the delay in awarding the Fort Hood soldiers.

“We didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the trial and conviction of Hasan,” said Cornyn.

Military officials originally denied Purple Hearts because the shooting was considered workplace violence and not terrorism. But last year, Congress changed that. Many of the Purple Heart recipients are suing the federal government over the attack and are seeking damages.

In all, 13 people were killed, and another 32 were wounded in the deadliest attack ever on a U.S. military installation. Former Maj. Nadal Hasan was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death.

In our gallery, you can see photos of the 13 people killed in the attacks five years ago.

Why it took almost six years for the medal ceremony to happen

  • The 2009 attacks were initially described as workplace violence, which made victims ineligible for Purple Hearts.
  • But victims and their families didn’t give up. Earlier this year, the long battle came to an end when the Department of Defense expanded the eligibility criteria by broadening what’s considered an attack by a foreign terrorist organization.
  • The Army considered the shooting an attack because the shooter was in communication with a foreign terror group before the incident.

The gunman who killed 13 people at a Texas military base in 2009 appeared in a Kansas court late January — without the beard he wore during his August 2013 trial and had fought to keep — and said he wanted to keep his lead appeals lawyer. A change of counsel could complicate an already-delayed review process. Nidal Hasan is being held on the military death row after being convicted and sentenced to death for the November 2009 rampage inside a medical readiness building at Fort Hood.

A Fort Hood spokesman confirmed Hasan’s beard had been forcibly shaved according to military guidelines.

Nearly 18 months after his conviction, Hasan has not yet had his case reviewed by top Fort Hood officials, as required in the military criminal justice system. If Fort Hood’s commanding general approves Hasan’s death sentence, he would then receive two mandatory reviews by military appellate courts and possibly the U.S. Supreme Court.

While he represented himself at trial, Hasan’s appeals are being handled by a team led by Lt. Col. Kris Poppe, who has been named a military judge. In his new position, Poppe is subordinate to Col. Tara Osborn, Hasan’s trial judge, who is now the chief trial judge of the Army.

Osborn on Jan. 29 questioned whether Poppe could keep handling Hasan’s appeals, a position that requires him to try to find mistakes with Osborn’s handling of the trial. But Hasan told Osborn after conferring with another defense lawyer privately that he wanted to keep his counsel in place. Poppe argued he could handle both positions. Osborn asked the prosecution and the defense to state their positions in writing by next week.

Osborn ordering Poppe off the case could create grounds for a challenge by the next attorney to lead Hasan’s appeals, said Geoffrey Corn, a military law expert who teaches at South Texas College of Law.

Corn said the post-trial process for Hasan was taking much longer than a typical military case. But, he added, “That has been the unifying theme of everything in this case. Nothing has been routine.”

One unordinary hiccup was Hasan’s now-shaved beard. Hasan insisted on keeping the beard at trial in what he said was an expression of his Muslim faith. The judge on his case before Osborn was removed from the case by a military appeals court after he tried to order Hasan to be forcibly shaved.

Osborn allowed Hasan to keep the beard, despite it violating Army grooming rules.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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