The Army will award the Purple Heart and its civilian counterpart to victims of the 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, the Army announced Friday.
The decision by Army Secretary John McHugh follows a change in the medals' eligibility criteria mandated by Congress, according to the Army announcement. It also comes after a years-long battle by the victims and their families in the aftermath of what was the worst shooting rampage on a U.S. military installation.
Thirteen people were killed and more than 30 wounded in the November 2009 attack by former Maj. Nidal Hasan.
Hasan was convicted in August 2013 of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder.
"The Purple Heart's strict eligibility criteria has prevented us from awarding it to victims of the horrific attack at Fort Hood," McHugh said in a statement. "Now that Congress has changed the criteria, we believe here is sufficient reason to allow these men and women to be awarded and recognized with either the Purple Heart or, in the case of civilians, the Defense of Freedom medal."
McHugh said the medal is "an appropriate recognition of their service and sacrifice."
McHugh has directed Army officials to identify soldiers and civilians now eligible for the awards as soon as possible, according to the Army. Soldiers receiving the Purple Heart automatically qualify for combat-related special compensation upon retirement. They also are eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
"It's about time," said Reed Rubinstein, who represents nine of the 13 individuals killed in the shooting along with dozens of the wounded. "We're tremendously gratified ... there's quite a lot that the bureaucracy has to make up for, and we hope that this is the first step."
The Army's move was reported by Fox News, citing unnamed sources, shortly before the announcement.
A petition by Rubinstein and Neal Sher filed Dec. 31 on behalf of the victims called on the Defense Department to review the incident under the expanded eligibility criteria included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Congress redefined what should be considered an attack by a "foreign terrorist organization," according to the Army. The legislation states that an event should now be considered an attack by such an organization if the perpetrator "was in communication with the foreign terrorist organization before the attack," and "the attack was inspired or motivated by the foreign terrorist organization."
In a review of the Fort Hood incident and the new provisions of law, the Army determined there was sufficient evidence to conclude Hasan "was in communication with the foreign terrorist organization before the attack," and that his radicalization and subsequent acts could reasonably be considered to have been "inspired or motivated by the foreign terrorist organization," the Army said.
On Nov. 5, 2009, Hasan walked into a medical building where soldiers were getting medical checkups, shouted "Allahu akbar" — Arabic for "God is great" — and opened fire.
Hasan has said he acted to protect Islamic insurgents abroad from American aggression.
Hasan, who was said to have been inspired by al-Qaeda and its U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, was sentenced to death by a general court-martial. He is incarcerated at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
While the Purple Heart will come with some financial benefits to its recipients, "it was never about the money," Rubinstein said. "What you have is such a disconnection between the reality of Nidal Hasan being a terrorist who murdered for jihad. ... The people who were there heard him. Everybody read the reports on it."
Rubinstein cited several lawmakers for their work in support of the victims' cause, including Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who held a lessons-learned hearing on the shooting in 2012.
"I want to thank the victims, their families, and all of our armed services for serving their country with honor," McCaul said in a news release after the announcement. "Although nothing can ever repay them for their sacrifices, I hope that honoring them with Purple Hearts will offer a sense of recognition and appreciation on behalf of a grateful nation."
Sher, who spoke with Army Times before the official announcement, said the decision refutes claims that the shooting amounted to "workplace violence," calling that assertion "utter garbage."
"The government has been playing games, giving the people the back of its hand," Sher said, "and finally, after the new legislation was passed, they were forced to look in the mirror and they have concluded what everybody else saw this as: It was an act of terror."