FORT HOOD, Texas – President Barack Obama returned to the grieving Army post Wednesday where he first took on the job as the nation’s comforter five years ago, mourning with families and uniformed comrades of those killed during last week’s Fort Hood shooting spree. “We somehow bear what seems unbearable,” he declared.
It was yet another sad observance for a president who has had to deliver words of consolation across the country many times. At Fort Hood, the ceremony was made more poignant as a remembrance for soldiers who didn’t die in wars abroad but in the safety of their own compound.
“They were members of a generation that has borne the burden of our security for more than a decade of war,” Obama said on a breezy, sun washed day in central Texas.
Three soldiers died and 16 others were wounded in the rampage last Wednesday by another soldier, who killed himself.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrived late Wednesday morning at Fort Hood, where the camouflage fatigues of troops standing to salute his passing motorcade almost blended in with the desert terrain. Flags were lowered to half-staff at the sprawling Army post, where Obama met with victims’ relatives before offering his public condolences.
The memorial took place at the same spot where Obama eulogized victims of another mass shooting in 2009.
Three battle crosses, helmet-topped rifles above combat boots, stood in front of the speakers’ platform, representing the three soldiers shot and killed – Sgt. Carlos Lazaney-Rodriguez, Sgt. Timothy Owens, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Ferguson.
Officials say they died following a shooting rampage by Army Spc. Ivan Lopez, who took his own life. Four of those shot remain in hospitals, officials said.
Obama praised Ferguson for keeping the gunman from pushing into a room where others could have been killed. “Danny held the door shut, saving the lives of others while sacrificing his own,” he said. Owens was known for counseling fellow soldiers, the president said, and “gave his life walking toward the gunman, trying to calm him down.”
Obama was the only speaker to mention that four soldiers were lost, including Lopez. As the president finished an address in which he repeated the phrase “love never ends,” one soldier in the audience brushed away tears. The president exited the stage with his head down.
Fort Hood is a major post from which troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. As Obama has wound down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing troops back from the warzone, it seemed all the more jarring to have their sense of safety upended at their home base.
“It hurts. It hurts in the middle of the night. It hurts in the middle of the day. It hurts in the middle of your stomach. It hurts to lose someone you love,” Chaplain Col. Goff said, following the president’s address. “The reason it hurts so much is because we love so much.”
Toward the end of the ceremony, soldiers stood for a roll call. The fallen soldiers’ names were bellowed out by a sergeant three times. After no answer, in accordance with military tradition, their names were stricken from the roll. A line of seven soldiers pointed their rifles to the sky and shot three times. A solemn trumpeter played taps.
Time and again, Obama has been called on find ways to give meaning to senseless death. Tucson, Ariz. Aurora, Colo., Newtown, Conn., Boston, the Washington Navy Yard – communities now synonymous with tragedy. And now Fort Hood – for a second improbable time.
Adding complexity to the president’s response were questions about whether Lopez’s wartime service precipitated his actions. Although Lopez did a short stint in Iraq in 2011 and said he suffered a traumatic brain injury, Fort Hood officials have said his mental condition was not a “direct participating factor” in the shooting. Still, the 34-year-old was undergoing treatment for depression and anxiety while being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, base officials said.
“We must honor these men by doing more to care for our fellow Americans living with mental illness, civilian and military,” Obama said. “Today four American soldiers are gone. Four Army families are devastated. As commander in chief, I’m determined that we will continue to step up our efforts to reach our troops and veterans who are hurting, to deliver to them the care that they need and to make sure we never stigmatize those who have the courage to seek help.”
For Obama, who tried unsuccessfully to turn the school tragedy of Newtown into a call for new gun controls, the Fort Hood shooting was less about pledging new policies than it was to simply do more with the tools in hand.
“In our open society, in advanced bases like this, we can never eliminate every risk, but as a nation, we can do more to help counsel those with mental health issues, to keep firearms out of the hands of those who are having such deep difficulties,” he said. “As a military, we must continue to do everything in our power to secure our facilities and spare others this pain.”
In attendance were members of the Texas congressional delegation, including Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also attended. The military brass included Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Secretary John McHugh, and Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s top commander.
To be sure, Obama is not the first president called on to help Americans in their grief. Ronald Reagan had the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Bill Clinton had Oklahoma City and George W. Bush had 9/11, to say nothing of the wars that American troops have fought overseas.
Those close to Obama say he sees his role after a tragedy as fulfilling a ministerial function for the nation. Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser and longtime friend, said although it’s painful for Obama, he understands the importance for the president to show leadership, empathy and strength in times of crisis, and for him to spend time with each family member affected.
“It’s hard because it’s deeply personal for him,” Jarrett said in an interview. “He identifies as a father, as a husband, as a son, as a family member.”