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Victims of first Fort Hood attack hope for more benefits

Apr. 12, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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KILLEEN, TEXAS — Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning watched in horror as a shooting spree again unfolded at his former Fort Hood army post.

A victim of a similar 2009 Fort Hood attack, where an Army psychiatrist shot and killed 13 people and injured more than 30, Manning thought not only of the excruciating physical and mental pain of the victims and their families after the April 2 rampage, but also of the potential financial turmoil that lies ahead.

“I’m sad to know these guys who are wounded, many of them are going to be stuck in the same situation we are in,” said Manning, 38, who was shot six times and still has bullets lodged in his back and right leg. “After our shooting, I always thought the Army would do the right thing. But now, 4½ years later, we’re still waiting.”

Manning is part of a group of several dozen victims and families from the 2009 shooting who have been lobbying the military to classify their assault as a “terrorist attack,” which would unlock greater benefits and compensation. The designation would put them in the same classification as someone killed or wounded in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan and line them up for a Purple Heart, which brings further compensation and recognition.

But even though the case of Nidal Hasan, the former Army major who carried out the attack, was laden with terrorist undertones, the military so far has declined to call it an act of terrorism.

“Anyone in his right mind would see it as a terrorist act,” said Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, 47, who was shot seven times by Hasan. “I wished they’d recognize our shooting for what it is.”

Hasan yelled “Allahu Akbar!” — or God is great — on Nov. 5, 2009, just before firing at unarmed soldiers and civilians inside an on-post processing center. Shortly after the attack, investigators discovered more than a dozen e-mail exchanges between Hasan and known terrorist Anwar Al-Awlaki.

In the opening statement of his court-martial last year, Hasan, an American-born Muslim, admitted to carrying out the attack and being a mujahedin — or holy warrior in defense of Islam. Hasan was convicted on murder charges and sentenced to death.

But an initial review by the Army showed that Hasan — though radicalized — acted alone and was not directed by an outside terrorist group, as required for the classification, said Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, an Army spokeswoman. Another review known as the Webster Commission report stated that, besides the communication with Al-Awlaki, Hasan “had no known contact and no known relationships with criminal elements, agents of foreign powers or potential terrorists.”

The Army can’t review any evidence from the court-martial until it’s authenticated by the post commander, a process that could take several more months, Conway said. “We stand ready to act accordingly should any evidence to the contrary be presented,” she said.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart, a war veterans group, backed the Army’s decision, saying the military should strictly adhere to the rules of the medal. “To do otherwise is a slap in the face to all those that have received this award and would demean the significance of the award to future recipients,” it said in a statement.

The only time Purple Hearts were given to service members not wounded or killed in overseas combat was when they were awarded to military victims of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the group said.

Last year, Texas Republican Rep. John Carter added a provision to the Armed Services Authorization Bill that would have given Fort Hood victims combat-related benefits and Purple Heart medals. It passed the House but was struck down by the Senate, he said. He then created a stand-alone bill — the Fort Hood Victims and Families Benefits Protection Act — which has since gathered 230 co-signatures and is scheduled to go up for a vote later this spring.

Besides the terrorism aspects of the attack, many of the victims of the 2009 shooting were either just returning from Iraq or Afghanistan or readying to embark to those combat zones, Carter said.

“These people should be recognized as if they were on a battlefield,” he said. “The only difference is (Hasan) took the battlefield from Iraq and Afghanistan and brought it to them.”

For Lunsford, it took 10 surgeries and 89 days in the hospital to remove the bullets from his head, rib cage, stomach and other parts of his body. Now on disability retirement in Lillington, N.C., Lunsford still has a bullet lodged in his back and routinely battles bouts of depression.

The Army has covered all his medical expenses, he said. But the combat-related classification and Purple Heart would bring him an additional $2,500 a month, which would help him and his family cope, he said. More than the cash, he and the others want an honest assessment from the Army, Lunsford said.

As President Obama prepared to travel to Fort Hood on April 12 to speak at the memorial of the latest shooting, Lunsford wrote a letter to Obama’s chief of staff, requesting a meeting with the president. It was unanswered.

“After more than 4½ years, the government still hasn’t made good on its promises,” Lunsford said.

Manning said he watched part of Obama’s recent Fort Hood speech on television and found it painfully similar to the speech the president gave nearly five years ago as Manning lay in a hospital bed, recovering from his wounds. During the 2½ years he spent in hospitals, as surgeons extracted bullet slugs from his abdomen and legs, Manning lost nearly $70,000 in civilian pay as a mental health counselor — money he says he could recoup if given the combat-related classification.

“After the (Hasan) trial, we thought the Army would turn around and do the right thing,” Manning said. “But we’re in exactly the same position.”

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