Little trace of Navy Yard shooter remains at Naval Air Station Fort Worth

Posted Saturday, Sep. 21, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Naval Air Station Fort Worth, through the years More than 11,000 employees — active duty, Guard and reserve, as well as civilians — worked at the base as of June 2011. 1932 — Established as Tarrant Field. 1941 — A Consolidated Aircraft factory is built on the land next door to build B-24 Liberator bombers. The facility is now known as Lockheed Martin. 1948-93 — Known as Carswell Air Force Base, named after a Medal of Honor recipient, Maj. Horace S. Carswell Jr. 1991 — Carswell is recommended for closure by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Committee. 1994 — The base becomes Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth and is home to several Navy Reserve, Marine Corps, Air Force and Air National Guard commands. Source: U.S. Navy

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Unlike in Washington, D.C., Aaron Alexis left almost no mark at his workplace in Fort Worth.

The flags, flying at half-staff, are the only sign today of the Washington Navy Yard shooter at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, where Alexis served from 2008 to January 2011.

Police and the FBI say Alexis, 34, fatally shot 12 people Monday at the sprawling military facility along a tributary of the Potomac River. He was killed in a gunbattle with police.

At the base in west Fort Worth, Alexis worked in Building 1048, a beige two-story brick structure with brown trim. It housed the mammoth hangar and shops where the aviation electronics mate third class repaired equipment for Navy cargo planes.

NAS officials have declined to discuss Alexis’ time in Fort Worth. But even if they could talk, most personnel at the base today are unlikely to have served with him.

His unit, the Navy’s Fleet Logistics Support Squadron 46, was disbanded in 2012, its duties taken over by another maintenance squadron, 59. Even the base commander is new: Navy Capt. Robert Bennett left in July after two years running the base.

The Navy Times, citing service records and a former colleague , described Alexis as a below-average mechanic who was a decade older than most recruits and a loner who believed the work was beneath him.

A former colleague in Alexis’ unit, which was based in Georgia when he joined it, told The Washington Post that Alexis underwent a transformation during his final two years as a Navy reservist. The colleague described Alexis as threatening and abusive in social situations.

“He started taking a turn with his attitude and became very short-tempered,” the former colleague told the Post. “He had problems with authority, with people telling him what to do.”

“To all of us at work, he looked like he had anger management issues.”

Both publications said their source spoke on the condition of anonymity, so it’s not clear whether it was the same person.

The man who described himself as Alexis’ best friend in Fort Worth said that Alexis didn’t fit well with the Navy.

He complained about his boss in Building 1048 and hated the Navy because of the early start every morning, made harder by his main off-base activity, White Settlement restaurant owner Nutpisit Suthamtewakul said.

“Aaron was up till 3 or 4 in the morning playing video games, like Call of Duty,” Suthamtewakul explained.

There is no sign the Navy got involved when Alexis was investigated for discharging a firearm in his apartment off South Hulen Street and Stonegate Boulevard in 2010, more than halfway into his three-year tour.

He told authorities that the gun went off while he was cleaning it. A neighbor who was home when the bullet entered through her floor said he did it on purpose.

The Tarrant County district attorney’s office said it did not pursue a case because the firing did not amount to recklessness under Texas law.

After the shooting spree, investigators began examining every corner of Alexis’ life, including his time at NAS Fort Worth, his final Navy post.

‘City within a city’

Naval Air Station Fort Worth has seen at least six name changes since 1942 and keeps reinventing itself to stay relevant to the nation’s defense industry.

The former Carswell Air Force Base remains an asset to the community, with claims of an annual economic impact of $2.3 billion. More than 11,000 workers were assigned to the base as of June 2011.

Its fortunes rose and fell with war and peace and tensions between conflicts. Established in 1942 during World War II, the field became an important Strategic Air Command base during the Cold War and the backdrop for a Hollywood film. (The base’s website, with more booster’s pride than critical judgment, calls Jimmy Stewart’s Strategic Air Command a “classic.”)

The facility and the defense plant next door — now Lockheed Martin — formed Fort Worth’s own military-industrial complex for decades.

The risk of losing the base in 1993 mobilized political and civic leaders to persuade the Pentagon to accept a novel idea, the first joint reserve base.

All the bits and pieces made homeless by base closures nationwide would be better off at Carswell than at Naval Air Station Dallas (actually in Grand Prairie), said Paul Paine, a retired naval officer who spent two tours at the base, one of them as its commander.

Fort Worth had a wider runway, better infrastructure and room to grow. It became the model for two more joint reserve bases, although one has since closed, leaving only Fort Worth and New Orleans.

In 1994, Carswell got new life as a joint reserve base but lost more than 700 acres. A federal prison took over medical buildings and the officers’ club.

Nineteen years later, the base is still a hodgepodge of units from the Navy, Army, Marines, Air Force and Texas Air National Guard.

Wearing a different uniform are female inmates from the adjoining prison, who mount large riding mowers to keep the grounds sheared — saving the 1,775-acre base hundreds of thousands of dollars that it once paid a private landscaping contractor, said Paine, who now heads Fort Worth South Inc., a nonprofit aimed at vitalizing the Hospital District and surrounding neighborhoods.

The base is often a temporary stop for thousands of reservists and hundreds of active-duty personnel who come and go every year.

Any memory of the troubled reservist from New York is long buried in some personnel file, just like so many before and after him.

Suthamtewakul, perhaps Alexis’ closest friend in Fort Worth, said Alexis loathed the Navy — and harbored inexplicable animosity toward most whites, Hispanics and African-Americans, although he himself was black.

The one exception was a black shop owner next to Suthamtewakul’s restaurant, Happy Bowl.

The quixotic and at times emotional New Yorker enjoyed the company of Asians, attending a local Buddhist temple, traveling to Asia and picking up remarkably fluent Thai, said Suthamtewakul, who is of Thai origin.

Like others stationed at Fort Worth, Alexis used the base gym and commissary, picking up tax-free cases of Heineken, his friend said.

The commissary is still there but is now run by a Defense Department agency. Its former operator, the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, maintains a retail store across the street, near a grilled-sub shop and a bank.

On base, there’s also a thrift shop, a hotel, a church and a day-care center.

The stables are gone, and the golf course has been spun off. But there are boat docks, a movie theater, a bowling alley and a covered swimming pool (when it is not closed for prolonged repairs, as it is now).

“It’s a city within a city,” said Don Ray, a civilian public affairs officer with the Navy.

On an overcast Thursday afternoon, three days after Alexis’ rampage, the base appeared not unlike other military installations across the country.

Guards in body armor checked IDs at the gate but appeared relaxed. The cavernous hangar where Alexis once worked was readied for a function, filled with row upon row of white folding chairs facing a huge American flag draped from the ceiling.

Only the flags at half-staff indicated that Alexis had left a mark, albeit a malevolent one.

Videos: Fort Worth residents recall Aaron Alexis

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718 Twitter: @bshlachter

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