KILLEEN, Texas – Five years after a similar visit, President Obama was back Wednesday on the same field in front of the same building on the same Army post in the same state, with some of the same faces again grieving for soldiers killed in an act of senseless violence.
For president and mourners alike, the outdoor service for the victims of last week’s military base rampage at Fort Hood proved a haunting repeat of the first mass shooting on Obama’s watch, in the fall of 2009. The casualty toll was lighter this time and the apparent motives different, but the anguish was no less powerful.
“To the men and women of Fort Hood,” a somber Obama said, “part of what makes this so painful is that we’ve been here before. 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. We still do not yet know exactly why. But we do know this. We must honor their lives not in word or talk, but in deed and in truth.”
While it was still being determined why a soldier shot three of his comrades and then himself, Obama vowed to do more to address mental illness among veterans.
“Today, four American soldiers are gone; four Army families are devastated,” he said. “As commander in chief, 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.”
Arrayed in front of the president were three helmets mounted on rifles, three sets of boots and three photographs, one for each of those shot to death by Spc. Ivan A. Lopez on April 2, just as there were 13 such sets five years ago. And three battle crosses stood in front of the speakers’ platform, representing the three soldiers shot and killed – Sgt. Carlos Lazaney-Rodriguez, Sgt. Timothy Owens and Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Ferguson.
And just as he did in November 2009, after Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s shooting spree, Obama paid homage to the courage of a generation of men and women who signed up to protect their country only to lose their lives at home.
Accompanied by the first lady, Michelle Obama, the president visited privately with the wounded and families of the slain before addressing a crowd of thousands outside the headquarters of III Corps here on the nation’s largest Army post.
The president stood about 2 miles from Building 42003, the medical processing center where Hasan started his shooting rampage. The building is now an empty patch of ground, after Fort Hood officials demolished it. They plan to mark the site with trees, a gazebo and a plaque.
Obama passed lightly over any larger lessons from that episode or this one. His spokesman, Jay Carney, said the president’s views of gun control were well known, and he referred to the Pentagon questions about whether soldiers on military posts should be allowed to carry concealed weapons, as some Republican lawmakers have suggested.
In his remarks, the president said the country must “keep firearms out of the hands of those” with mental troubles. “As a military,” he added, “we must continue to do everything in our power to secure our facilities and spare others this pain.”