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Fort Hood shooting survivor prepares to testify

Aug. 8, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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DES MOINES, IOWA — Joy Clark will tell the story one more time.

She doesn’t know when, but she hopes soon to finally tell a military court about the terrible day in November 2009 when Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan entered a building at Fort Hood military base in Texas and started killing his fellow soldiers.

Clark may be forced to wait — again — to testify. She is at Fort Hood now. She was supposed to go on the stand Thursday.

But on Wednesday, the attorneys the military assigned to provide legal assistance as Hasan acts as his own attorney asked to be removed from the case. The judge halted proceedings.

The delay is emblematic of the case’s plodding pace for nearly four years.

“It has been a long time, and I am ready to be done with it,” Clark told The Des Moines Register in a telephone interview this week.

When she testifies, Clark will tell of a fellow soldier gunned down in front of her. She will tell of the bullet that shattered one of the bones in her left arm and nearly left it useless.

Clark may even answer questions from Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 soldiers and wounding 32 others, including Clark, a Des Moines native who still lives in the city with her family.

Clark will do her duty. She will face the man who tried to kill her. She will tell the truth. And then she will do what she has been trying to do for nearly four years: Move on.

Routine moments, then bullets fly

It was 1:30 p.m. Nov. 4, 2009. Clark remembers looking at the clock on her iPod as she waited inside an office building at Fort Hood for a routine medical exam.

The stop was the third in a series of tests to prepare her and her unit to deploy to Afghanistan. It was to be her first overseas deployment since she joined the Army Reserve in 2001.

The process was necessary but tedious. She opened a book.

The shooting began at 1:34 p.m. Military prosecutors allege Hasan entered the building and opened fire on his fellow soldiers, which he acknowledges. He pumped out more than 100 rounds over the next 10 minutes.

The Army teaches its troops situational awareness. Always be alert. Know where you are vulnerable to attack. Find available cover. Survive. And above all else: Take care of your buddies.

Clark did not expect to have to use this training inside the gates of the largest U.S. military base in the world.

But, as she describes it, she did what any soldier would do. She went to work. The trained field medic reached for the soldier closest to her. He was hit. He slumped forward. Clark wrapped her left arm around him and tried to help.

Hasan shot her, Clark said. The man in her arms died. The bullet pierced Clark’s left forearm below the elbow. It went all the way through. She inspected the injury. She felt little pain. She saw little blood.

The soldiers in the building were unarmed.

Clark dived for cover. She joined the soldiers fleeing Hasan’s onslaught. She hooked her good arm around another wounded man and dragged him toward the door. She felt a push in her back. One of the soldiers yelled, “We’ve got him! Just go!”

Clark helped one of her unit captains, who had been trampled in the dash for the door. She carried the captain behind metal storage containers outside the office. The captain said she was OK and ordered Clark to get to safety.

Clark ran to a nearby office building. Dozens of soldiers packed the office. Wounded men and women lay on any flat surface available — desks, the floor. Others leaned against the wall.

She found a patient and went to work. Soldiers stripped off their shirts and tore them up for bandages. The shooting was a mile from the nearest hospital.

Clark tried to tie a tourniquet on a wounded soldier with her one hand. She peeled off her jacket so it could be shredded for bandages. A chaplain inspected her injuries. He suggested she sit down.

Clark looked at her left arm. She blacked out.

She woke up in an ambulance. Her forearm swelled to the size of a football. She borrowed a cellphone from one of the civilians in the ambulance. She called her husband, Josh Clark, back home in Des Moines.

“She said, ‘I’ve been shot, but I’m OK,’” Josh Clark remembered. He replied, “OK, I’m on my way.”

Recovery becomes an endurance test

The bullet did more damage than Joy Clark originally thought. It shattered a bone in her forearm and shredded an artery. There was a chance she would lose use of the limb. Amputation was possible.

Clark endured five surgeries to repair the arm.

The recovery was slow and arduous. For nearly four years, she endured physical and occupational therapy three to five days a week. Clark, 30, is a task-oriented person. She likes to set out a list of goals and accomplish them quickly and efficiently. But her body required more time to heal.

“Things are not always going to happen when you want them to,” Clark said. “I had to learn how to go with it, take what my body was going to give me and be patient.”

Josh Clark helped with this. The 35-year-old architectural draftsman is the more laid back of the pair. He helped his wife get used to being home.

They watched awful science-fiction movies together, one of the couple’s favorite activities. They spent lots of time with family and friends.

She threw herself into school. She earned a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy. Now she’s going for a master’s degree in the field.

Clark feels pangs of guilt over not being able to deploy to Afghanistan. But she has kept in touch with other survivors, and that has helped assuage those feelings.

Clark has worked humanitarian missions for the Army. Recently, she worked at a clinic in the Mississippi Delta, helping the region’s poverty-stricken people get basic medical care.

“We saw well over 650 individuals in eight and a half days,” Clark said of the trip. “We had a dentist that saw 60 patients a day, and an optometrist who saw 40 to 45 people a day. It felt so good to do good in your own country.”

After injury, she's a better medic, mom

The injury and recovery made her a better healer.

“I know the frustration of an injury that still hurts after two or three years,” she said. “I’ve been through that.”

The recovery also made her a better mother. When the Clarks’ daughter, Elisabeth, was born 14 months ago, the lesson of not always being able to set your own schedule was put to use immediately.

“Sometimes I think it is lunch time, and Izzy thinks it is nap time,” Clark said. “She will just lay her head down in a plate of food and I’ll say, ‘Well, obviously, it is not lunch time.’”

Izzy also helped Clark ease through any bitterness over the shooting. The little girl is discovering the whole world, and it helps Clark see wonder in the mundane.

“The other day, the lights in our house kept flashing off and on,” Clark said. “Izzy discovered the light switch. It was the best thing ever. I hadn’t thought about a light switch in 20 years. Everything is new to her.”

First comes duty, but life beckons

Still, the trial looms. One more time she must face Hasan, this time in a military courtroom.

Hasan, while acting as his own lawyer, can cross-examine witnesses. She may have to answer questions from the man authorities say tried to kill her.

Her trip to Fort Hood this week was the first time she’s been there since the killings.

“My memories of this place are not the happiest,” Clark said.

The zipper-like scar on her left arm, with two dime-sized dots on each side of her elbow, is evidence enough of that.

Clark’s arm suffered some permanent mobility loss, but she is cleared for full active duty, a status she plans to maintain for at least another eight years, when she becomes eligible for full retirement.

Clark never refers to Hasan by his name. He is always “the defendant” or “him.”

“He is not worth my time to speak his name,” she said.

Clark is forbidden from discussing the trial.

She says only that she will do her duty and testify.

Whatever will happen with Hasan and his trial will happen, Clark said.

After she testifies, there will be more bad science-fiction movies to watch, people to help heal, school books to read and dinners to be had with family and friends.

And, of course, there’s whatever Izzy has in mind for her mom and dad.

“It was a terrible thing that happened, but it really helped us put things in perspective,” Josh Clark said. “We got into a car accident the other day and we said, ‘Well, it’s not getting shot.’ We laughed.”

Joy Clark added: “All you can do is live your life.”

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