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At Fort Hood, Mourning And A Search For Answers

U.S. Army Specialist Sheldon Rabago, Nancy Rabago and their son Owen mourn during a vigil Friday for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
U.S. Army Specialist Sheldon Rabago, Nancy Rabago and their son Owen mourn during a vigil Friday for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting.

Fort Hood remained in mourning on Saturday as the community continued its search for answers into why an Army psychiatrist allegedly opened fired on his fellow soldiers Thursday afternoon. The outburst of violence left 13 people dead and 30 wounded.

A more complete picture is also emerging of the victims, who ranged from a 19-year-old Utah native preparing for his first combat tour to a 62-year-old physician assistant who had just returned to work after suffering a heart attack two weeks ago.

Pfc. Aaron Nemelka, from West Jordan, Utah, joined the Army instead of going on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was training to dispose of munitions.

"He wanted to serve his country," Michael Nemelka, his grandfather told the Deseret News. "He picked what he wanted to do. He wanted to do one of those dangerous jobs."

Michael Cahill, the slain physician assistant, treated soldiers coming home from tours of duty or preparing for deployment.

"I'm angry because he was a person who had so much to give, in helping the soldiers, and now he is lost because of this," his wife, Joleen Cahill, told the Austin American-Statesman.

The shooting rampage occurred at the Soldiers Readiness Processing Center, where some of the victims were preparing to head overseas. Russell Seager, a VA nurse from Mt. Pleasant, Wis., was planning to lead a mental health team in Iraq.

Pfc. Kham Xiong, who came to the United States as a toddler, was standing in line to get a flu shot and an eye exam before shipping out to Afghanistan in January.

Others had recently returned from combat. Francheska Velez, 21, just back from Iraq, was pregnant and about to be temporarily released from duty.

The backgrounds of the victims serve as a poignant reminder of the diversity of the U.S. military, a theme President Obama spoke about in his weekly radio address.

"They are Americans of every race, faith and station. They are Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers," he said. "They are descendents of immigrants and immigrants themselves. They reflect the diversity that makes this America. But what they share is a patriotism like no other."

Soldiers hold a candle light vigil at Fort Hood, Texas, Friday.
LM Otero
Soldiers hold a candle light vigil at Fort Hood, Texas, Friday.

Obama's remarks were aimed at quelling some of the tension surrounding the Muslim faith of the alleged shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, 39, who was reportedly distraught about a pending deployment to either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Associates describe Hasan as a troubled and sometimes erratic man.

Two psychiatrists, who had worked closely with Hasan when he was training at Walter Reed, told NPR that the suspect could be belligerent and would sometimes belittle colleagues without provocation. The two asked not to be identified because the military had ordered them not to talk to reporters.

The psychiatrists also said Hasan once gave a bizarre lecture to the medical staff in which he said the Quran teaches that infidels should have their heads cut off and set on fire.

"When I heard the news about Hasan, honestly, my first thought was, 'That makes a lot of sense. That completely fits the person I knew,' " one of the psychiatrists told NPR.

Family members in the Palestinian West Bank described him as a normal person and a committed Muslim who spoke fondly of his life in the United States.

"The thing I'm trying to understand is the motivation," Mohammed Hasan, a cousin, told NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. "Why did he do this? This is totally out of character for Nidal. This is a very quiet and calm person. We are extremely surprised by what he has done."

The cousin says that Hasan was unhappy about his pending deployment and by how his Army colleagues acted towards him.

"He was being treated as a Muslim by the Army — an Arab — and not as an American," he said. "He felt he was being discriminated against."

Hasan has been moved to an Army medical center in San Antonio, where he is being treated for multiple gunshot wounds. It is unclear whether he remains in a coma.

Some of the other victims injured in the attack have been released from area hospitals. Scott and White Memorial Hospital, which took in 10 shooting victims, has already allowed four of them to return home.

Dr. Roy Smythe, the head of surgery at the hospital, said on Saturday that two patients remain in the surgical intensive care unit, but they no longer need ventilators to breathe.

"Some of them are out of the woods, but some of them, their injuries are so severe that only time will tell how they do in the long run," he told reporters. "There is certainly no doubt that many of them will be psychologically impaired for the rest of their lives."

The military's investigation into the incident continues, but plenty of questions remain.

"We cannot fully know what leads a man to do such a thing," said Obama, who will attend a memorial service at Fort Hood on Tuesday, according to the White House. "But what we do know is that our thoughts are with every single one of the men and women who were injured at Fort Hood."

Col. John Rossi, the deputy commanding general at Fort Hood, says that an estimated 100 bullets were fired during the attack.

The alleged gunman was eventually brought down by four shots from the weapon of civilian police Sgt. Kimberly Munley, who was lauded Friday by post commander Lt. Gen. Robert Cone for her "amazing and aggressive performance" that saved lives.

At a vigil Friday night, Chaplain Douglas Carver told those gathered — many dressed in fatigues and black berets — to "remember to keep breathing ... keep going."

"God Bless America" and "Amazing Grace" were sung as husbands wrapped their arms around their wives, babies cried and old men in wheelchairs bowed their heads.

It was the first community gathering since the killings.

Army Sgt. Howard Appleby, who helped care for some of the wounded, said what happened on Thursday was even more traumatic than what he had experienced in Iraq.

"In Iraq you just see this once a day ... [you see] one guy die today, another guy die tomorrow, but 12, 13 guys die at one time — yeah, it's crazy."

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