Fort Hood, Texas, calls itself “The Great Place,” and that’s not just because a private named Elvis Presley trained there for six months in 1958.
The post’s 340 square miles also make it a very big place, and it has sent thousands of soldiers abroad since 9/11, most of them to Iraq. Some grim evidence of that fact stands in the heart of the post, on a field near the headquarters building of the 1st Cavalry Division. There you will see a circular memorial, its floor a replica of the division’s desert patch, and atop that patch’s black stripe is a bronze sculpture of two soldiers assisting a child.
Around that sculpture are granite slabs engraved with the names of around 700 soldiers assigned or attached to the 1st Cav who are among the nearly 4,500 U.S. service members who died in Iraq. The slabs contain the names of Alabama soldiers, including Spc. Ahmed Cason and Spc. Stephen “Dusty” Hiller — both killed during the same extended firefight in Baghdad’s Sadr City section on April 4, 2004 — and Staff Sgt. Robert C. Thornton Jr., killed in Baghdad on Aug. 23 of the same year.
A few minutes’ drive away is another series of memorials, each hung upon a chain link fence filled with cream-colored slats and topped by coils of razor wire. The various wreathes, bouquets, flags, photographs, stuffed animals and strands bearing words of love lack the permanence of granite, but they don’t lack in emotional power.
On November 5, 2009, the structure behind the fence was serving as the Soldier Readiness Processing Center. Thirteen people were shot and killed there that day, and more than twice that number were wounded, including then-Maj. Randy Royer of the Alabama National Guard’s 135th Expeditionary Sustainment Command. At the time, the Birmingham-based 135th was finishing up some training, medical tests, paperwork and other preparations for a deployment to Afghanistan, and the processing center was one of the required pre-deployment stops for its soldiers.
About 200 soldiers with the 135th were back at Fort Hood earlier this year, finalizing their preparations for another deployment – this time, to Kuwait. Many of them had been here in 2009, and Clark Kinder, the unit command sergeant major, said what happened on November 5 still weighs on those soldiers, particularly since the shooting suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, has not yet stood trial.
“It’s troubling to everyone who was out here… and to some of them who weren’t here, to be honest with you,” Kinder said in a late February interview at 135th headquarters in north Fort Hood. “They don’t have any closure to that episode.“
“We didn’t lose any soldiers ourselves. We just had the one wounded, but there were a lot of soldiers in the immediate area who could have been killed…and it is still quite emotional for them.”
Maj. Kendrick Traylor was another 135th soldier in the Readiness Processing Center on November 5. When the shooting started, he was meeting in a cubicle in a partitioned off part of the center with a physician’s assistant, a retired Army warrant officer named Michael Cahill. Cahill left the cubicle and, according to witness accounts, saw what was going on and charged the shooter. He was fatally wounded, the only civilian to die that day.
Traylor, who was not wounded, made a cell phone call to his unit headquarters in north Fort Hood to tell them what was happening so they could stop any other 135th solders from heading to the Readiness Processing Center. Ultimately, he got out safely. Later, he met with Cahill’s wife Joleen and other family members because he was the last person to have a conversation with Cahill. After deploying to Afghanistan, he flew a U.S. flag in Cahill’s honor over his base camp in Kandahar and sent the banner to Joleen Cahill around the time of her late husband’s birthday.
Talking to the bereaved Cahill family in the immediate aftermath of the shooting was one of the hardest things the University of Alabama ROTC instructor said he has ever done.
“Because at the time, I didn’t know what to say,” said Traylor, who is not part of the 135th’s current deployment. “Because at that time, I was feeling so guilty…I’m like, ‘How did I make it?’”
Traylor said Joleen Cahill had been keeping in touch with him, and that he owes her a letter or a phone call. He also said that Michael Cahill and the 12 other shooting victims are owed some justice.
“Let’s get it over with,” he said. “If you get it started, it’s going to get completed.”
While the 135th was nearing the end of its most recent stay at Fort Hood, authorities announced that Hasan, a psychiatrist, would go on trial in late May. Randy Royer, who is now a lieutenant colonel and expects to retire on medical disability from the Guard in a few weeks, expects to testify, probably around mid-July.
Like Royer, others who survived the wounds they sustained in the attack retain strong memories of the incident. But the alarm and confusion of that day are very real to others, like Kinder, who were never at the shooting scene.
An Oneonta resident, Kinder was picking up some equipment at a warehouse nearby. Suddenly, he said, “they locked us down. I couldn’t get out of the compound.” He immediately started trying to determine the whereabouts of as many 135th soldiers as he could, but perhaps because the cell towers were overloaded, that task was “just nearly impossible.”
Later in the day, he said, “we finally located 100 percent of our soldiers with the exception of Maj. Royer. I finally got him on the phone and he says he’s fine, right? Well, he was down in the hospital…but he didn’t want anybody to know he had been wounded.”
When the 135th was getting ready for its current deployment, the unit commander, Brig. Gen. Don Tatum, stressed some basics that U.S. soldiers have heard time and again as they head to a war zone: “Stay alert, stay alive, get your head in the game.”
Tatum also told his troops that when they got to Fort Hood, the level of security would be higher than it was the last time the 135th had trained there. There may be several reasons for that, perhaps chief among them the sentiment that one chain link fence, topped with razor wire and covered with memorials to 12 soldiers and a civilian who never expected to be shot during a routine day in November 2009, is one too many.