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‘Kick In The Gut:’ The Mood In Killeen Following The Fort Hood Shootings

Sgt. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD
U.S. Army
In this picture from February, Lt. Gen Mark Milley, III Corps and Fort Hood’s commanding general, and Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Schroeder, III Corps and Fort Hood command sergeant major, returned to Fort hood after a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan.";

The country is focusing on Fort Hood once again this week following Wednesday's shootings in which a soldier being treated for mental illness killed three people on the base and wounded 16 others before committing suicide.

Gov. Rick Perry plans to visit Fort Hood on Friday. He'll be briefed by military officials and visit some of the victims of Wednesday's attack blamed on Spc. Ivan Lopez. Post officials say the Army truck driver from Puerto Rico underwent treatment for depression and anxiety and was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Four victims remained hospitalized Friday at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple. Three patients are in serious condition while a fourth person is in good condition.

But what's the mood in Killeen? This week's shootings come five years after another rampage at Fort Hood.

'It doesn't seem shocking'

KUT, the public radio station in Austin, reports on the mood following the killings:

At Fort Hood in Killeen, people are accustomed to the idea of death. At any given point, around 10 percent of soldiers from the post are deployed overseas. This week, soldiers, families and residents were reminded of how close to home tragedy can strike – when Ivan Lopez opened fire killing three others and wounding 16 before turning the gun on himself. The Mercado Azteca Restaurant and Market sits across from the Army Post on North Fort Hood Street in Killeen. It’s a popular spot for soldiers. “Lunch rush is just military," employee Carmen Alvarado says. One day after the shooting at the army post, she says people are acting normal – complaining about heavy traffic on post.  Alvarado says the shooting was upsetting – but not extremely surprising. “It doesn’t seem shocking that it’s happening again, but you still worry," Alvarado says. …. Longtime resident Jimmy Hogberg said: “It’s kind of like not again and it’s such a great place you don’t want to be known for negative. Anytime you tell someone you’re from Killeen, they go 'Oh, OK, that’s where this and that happened." But Killeen Chamber of Commerce President John Crutchfield says this shooting is different the one in 2009. “That one drug out for a long time and there was a trial and it was really hard to get to some closure in that situation. This case won’t be like that. Closure will come much more quickly, unless you’re a victim or a member of a victim’s family. But the community will heal pretty quickly," Crutchfield says.

From NPR: “It's like losing a member of your family"

From Killeen, NPR’s Melissa Block talked to soldiers who were on base during the shooting, as well as with Killeen's mayor. Here's her story:

Mayor Dan Corbin was out on an errand Wednesday afternoon and heard the first news of the shooting on the radio.

“It's like losing a member of your family,” he told NPR. “Kick in the gut. You're very sad. You're mad. You're sad. You wish you could do something to help and you know that the best thing you could do right now is stay out of people's way and pray. There's going to be funerals and we need to pray for comfort for the families of those who've lost their loved ones the same we pray for those who were killed in combat.”

The city's been marked by spasms of extreme gun violence and Mayor Corbin knows them all too well. Back in 1991, it was the massacre at a Luby's Cafeteria in which 23 people were shot and killed. In 2009, it was former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan's shooting rampage at Fort Hood. He killed 13. And now, another year, another mass shooting.

“You learn a lot about a community in how it deals with adversity,” Corbin said. “And we've just had more experience than many other communities in dealing with adversity.”

'We were pretty thankful'

The breakfast crowd at Henderson's Family Restaurant included a lot of soldiers in desert camouflage. Among them, Staff Sergeant Debbie Burton. I talked with her outside. She says she got the emergency popup on her computer yesterday afternoon, heard the warning siren, tried to keep her fellow soldiers calm, as well as her mother home in Connecticut.

“She called me within minutes and she was crying and I said, Mom, I'm OK. You know, we're all OK,” Sgt. Burton said.

We've been through this before, Sgt. Burton says, and she's thinking back not just to that mass assault in 2009, but also to a different incident she saw firsthand and all too close. It was around 2005. She was out on a parade field with her unit conducting physical training. A soldier drove up right out onto the field and shot his wife just a few feet away from Sergeant Burton.

I asked her, as she heard the casualty numbers yesterday, what went through her mind.

“Thankfully, that was all,” Burton said. “I mean, no one losing their life is ever a good thing, but compared to what happened in 2009, we were pretty thankful that's all that it was.”

It strikes me as a really sad benchmark, that the mass killing in 2009 has become the standard of awfulness and if it wasn't that bad, that's a relief.

“Yes,” Burton said. “That's crazy, but yeah, that's true.”

"Again? Again?"

After First Lieutenant Christopher Clark got the emergency text Wednesday, he was on lockdown for more than four hours. And afterward, as he digested the news, he had this thought.

“Again? Again?” Clark said. “You know, now we are notorious for bad events, you know, here at Fort Hood and it's unfortunate so, you know. Right now, you know, it's just like, OK, leadership, what are you doing to do about it? You know, what are we doing from this point on, you know, to insure that this doesn't happen again?”

How much do you worry about this on a day-to-day basis, of folks who you know who are struggling, who have mental health issues and who could explode?

“Well, had it not been for my faith,” Clark said “I would worry about it every single day because it is a serious issue and I have served with guys, I have deployed with guys who have been on multiple deployments and they express their concern to leadership, but, you know, to no avail, to be honest with you. I'd like to call it an invisible war, really, you know. We're fighting, you know, within ourselves.

“We have a lot of guys, again, who've been deployed multiple times and you can imagine the things that they've seen over the years and what they have to deal with. And they come home and they deal with the families, you know, and it's just - you still got to go to work. So, you know, it's a lot on these guys. And in my personal opinion, you know, they haven't really been taken care of. They haven't been taken care of.

“I mean, I lost a soldier to suicide last January so, you know, I feel a certain type of way about situations like these and I've seen how leadership handles them.”

Many "afraid to come get help"

Counselor Annie Powers specializes in treating PTSD after a long career in the military. She sees a lot of military patients here in Killeen at the Adult, Child and Family Counseling Center and all of the patients she's talked to since the shooting have been talking about it.

“I could see where they might be concerned about, oh, great, you know, everybody thinks that if you have PTSD and some anger and anxiety and depression issues that you're crazy,” Powers said. “There's a lot of people who are afraid to come get the help. They don't want it on their military record. They don't want to go on medication because somebody might know that I couldn't handle it. I wasn't strong enough. And so I have to explain to them that PTSD is not about strength.

And this latest shooting, Powers says, is a powerful negative trigger.

“OK. Now, that you've finally got it into your head that you're probably safe, back to square one,” Powers said. “No, we're not safe. See, we told you we weren't safe. And so you have to pick up back there and start - OK, let's talk this out. Let's work it through. What did it bring up for you? Let's go from there and come back to where we had left off before this happened again.

Annie Powers echoes a feeling we've heard over and over here: Oh, no, not again. We just got over the last one.

Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.