When President Barack Obama and the first lady made a return visit to Fort Hood last week, they paused in front of the kind of memorials we have become accustomed to seeing since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
But this time the moving symbols — three pairs of boots, three rifles topped with three helmets, alongside photographs of three proud servicemen — did not represent soldiers killed in war. They had been slain by one of their own when Specialist Ivan A. Lopez went on an eight-minute shooting spree, wounding 16 others before killing himself.
The president, and the nation as a whole, couldn’t help but recall that five years earlier another soldier, Nidal Malik Hasan, engaged in a rampage that left 13 dead and 32 injured at the same military post.
“Part of what makes this so painful is that we’ve been here before,” the president said. “This tragedy tears at wounds still raw from five years ago. Once more, soldiers who survived foreign war zones were struck down here at home, where they’re supposed to be safe.”
Although there were only three sets of memorials in front of the podium where Obama spoke, he made a point to include the shooter in his remarks.
“Today four American soldiers are gone; four Army families are devastated,” he said.
Sometimes we forget that the families of assailants suffer along with the families of victims.
I saw this back during the gang wars in the 1980s when, on more than one occasion, I found myself in the presence of two mothers crying: one because her son was dead, the other because her son had killed him.
The same day that the president was in Fort Hood, KERA radio broadcast a story profiling a victim still recovering from the Fort Hood shooting of 2009, and it was one of the most moving accounts of forgiveness I’ve ever heard.
Patrick Zeigler had been so severely wounded that he was nicknamed “No. 14” because many didn’t think he would survive the four severe bullet wounds, including one to the head that resulted in 20 percent of his brain being removed, correspondent Doualy Xaykaothao reported.
Now living with his wife in Rochester, Minn., Zeigler said Hasan’s religious beliefs that led him to kill fellow soldiers were “a very ignorant and misplaced ideology,” adding that it was “very simple” for him to forgive the shooter.
Zeigler and his wife have become friends with members of Hasan’s family, the radio report said.
Wife Jessica Zeigler said, “What I learned about them is that they’re phenomenal people who have a beautiful faith. And they’re good family members. They love one another, they care about the victims, and they’ve done kind things for the victims, us included.”
Jessica Zeigler also said the Fort Hood community should support the family of the most recent shooter, Lopez, because they should not be held responsible for what he did.
“His wife, his father, his family, the children are just as much victims in this,” she told Xaykaothao. “They deserve the same level of support and empathy and prayers [from] the community.”
I was moved by the compassion expressed by this young couple who now have a 1-year-old son who came along after Zeigler thought he wouldn’t be able to have children.
We certainly shouldn’t make apologies for Lopez, Hasan or any other mass killer, but we do have to recognize that many in our military are returning home mentally wounded.
The president took note of that in his speech last week, saying, “I’m determined we will continue to step up our efforts to reach our troops and veterans who are hurting, to deliver to them the care that they need and to make sure we never stigmatize those that have the courage to seek help.”
Unless action follows those words, we can expect a lot more tragedies on the home front.