At Fort Hood, a 'Sense of Sorrow' Clouds Holidays

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December 24, 2009
By Donna Leinwand and Sharon Jayson
USA Today

For the first time in 22 years, Sheryll Pearson won't put up a Christmas tree. Suddenly, the holiday she's always loved is "horrible."

Photo: 1st Calvary Division's Pfc. Brandon Albert escorts the horse of the Fallen Soldier during Killen, Texas parade. Albert just returned from his first tour last month. (Joel Salcido)

Pearson's son, Mikey — Army Pfc. Michael Pearson, 22, who specialized in defusing bombs — is dead, gunned down last month in the rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, that killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 others. Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, is charged with the slayings.

For families of the victims, for the injured and for the many who call the post at Fort Hood home, the Nov. 5 tragedy remains a fresh, stinging wound in what should be a joyous holiday season. Injured soldiers are wrestling with rehab as their units deploy overseas. Soldiers who live at Fort Hood have put on a brave face as they regain their sense of security. Professional counselors and chaplains are trying to help everyone make sense of it all.

The soldiers at Fort Hood are accustomed to witnessing death. The sprawling, 340-square-mile post between Dallas and Austin is one of the largest military installations in the world, home to about 50,000 soldiers. Among the units based there is the 1st Cavalry, which has sent troops for multiple tours of duty in Iraq.

Yet the deaths they've witnessed have been in combat, not at home — not in the place they expect to find solace and security.

"People are grappling with the unthinkable having happened," says Maxine Trent, a marriage and family therapist who coordinates Scott & White's Military Homefront Services, a counseling program for soldiers and their families in Killeen, the community that surrounds the post.

In November, 35 people sought counseling related to the massacre, and another 32 sought help for combat stress, Trent says. As Christmas approaches, she expects more people to seek help.

"People are trying to figure out how to feel safe again. There's just a pervasive sense of sorrow," Trent says. "The holidays can be a difficult time anyway."

Col. Edward McCabe, senior chaplain at Fort Hood and a Catholic priest, says organizations at the post will reach out to soldiers who cannot go home for the holidays with open houses and small gatherings. He says he worries about the emotional health of the soldiers and their families.

"Even as we approach Christmas, there's a residual angry, aggressive sentiment among the soldiers that remains," he says. "I think it is very much related to the big incident of the shooting, but I can't define it precisely."

Soldiers who witnessed the shooting, victims, families of victims and community members will view the tragedy from a different perspective and will have to cope with a wide array of feelings, Trent says.

Photo: Mark Rodgers of Groesbeck, Texas, stands on the side of US-190 outside the main gate of Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, showing his support following the mass shootings at Fort Hood last week. (Jay Janner, Austin American-Statesman)

The soldiers who have come to her clinic are talking about "the trauma of what they saw and the experience of the day," she says. "Some have very grotesque, vivid images. Others are wondering about the senseless loss of life. There were people who were grievously wounded. The folks who were at 'ground zero' and felt a direct threat to their lives will have different issues than people who weren't."

'I'm lucky to be alive'

Staff Sgt. Joy Clark, 27, of Des Moines, a licensed occupational therapist assistant scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan as part of a mental health team, was among those at "ground zero."

She had been at Fort Hood just 24 hours when a bullet pierced her forearm, shattered a bone and shredded an artery. Surgeons grafted bone from her hip to the bone in her forearm. It will be a month before she'll know whether the graft worked, and then at least six months of healing and rehabilitation to regain strength and range of motion in the arm, she says.

"The people immediately to my left and my right both died, so I'm lucky to be alive," Clark says. "I'm so grateful for that."

She and her husband, a draftsman at a real estate firm, returned to Des Moines just before Thanksgiving.

They'll spend Christmas with their families and try to get tickets to the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., to see Iowa State play Minnesota. She's focusing on her rehab, and hopes to be biking, hiking and fishing by summer.

"We got her back," says Clark's father, Jerry Nelson. "There's a lot to be thankful for. Starting at the top, selfishly, she's alive. The surgeons were able to save her arm. All the rest of her battle buddies, our heart goes out to them."

Christmas will be as it always is, with family over to the house on Christmas Day, he says.

"I think we've done all the patting each other on the back and hugging already," he says. "Just having her home here is great."

Emotionally, he says, his daughter seems to be doing OK.

"We've talked about it. She's a pretty tough cookie," Nelson says. "She's had training on trauma. I think for Joy, she's had those kind of experiences that will help her cope with this situation."

But Nelson says he's still getting over the shock.

"When you walk into a hospital room like that, I'm not looking at Staff Sgt. Joy Nelson Clark. I'm looking at my daughter," Nelson says. "I didn't see the soldier. I saw my little girl. It's been an emotional situation. We feel very, very lucky that she is a survivor. And some weren't. It was that close and that quick."

Photo: Staff Sgt. Joy Clark of Des Moines was shot during the deadly rampage at Ft. Hood in November. A licensed occupational therapist assistant who was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan, Clark is now recuperating fro being shot in the arm at home in Iowa. (Justin Hayworth, The Des Moines Register)

As part of a mental health unit, Clark says she's keenly aware of how families and her fellow soldiers will cope with their pain and sorrow. Three people in her unit died in the shootings, she says, and 17 were injured.

"There were a few who survived but were too wounded to deploy. We lost people we know," Clark says. "Of course, we're going to grieve. There's some anger there. What's nice is that there are so many resources available. The Army understands we need time to deal."

Still, the mission continues. Those in her unit who survived uninjured deployed to Afghanistan the first week of December.

'It just brings sadness'

Many of the soldiers who did not deploy are on leave until February or remain at Fort Hood, which buzzes with activity as the holidays approach.

One Fort Hood housing area transformed its community center into a Santa's Workshop, with gingerbread cookies and crafts for the kids. Latrice Russell, 26, wife of an Army specialist who has deployed three times to Iraq, volunteered as Santa's elf. The tragedy, she says, has awakened an urge to help others.

"I didn't personally know anybody (wounded or killed), but it felt like I did," says Russell, who has lived at Fort Hood for six months. "My heart went out to the families and the kids. They go to Iraq and fight and then to be here at home and something like that happens — it's terrible."

After the shooting, Fort Hood officials added more military police patrols to Darnell Army Medical Center and health treatment areas on the post where some of the injured were cared for "to ease fears and act as a deterrent," the Army says on the Fort Hood website.

Photo: Destiny Russell, 7, and her cousin, Jonnay Jackson, 7, eat Christmas cookies during their visit to Santa's Workshop at Ft. Hood. The Fort Hood community is expending special efforts to ease the pain of last month's deadly shooting on the base. (Joel Salcido)

Fort Hood also is increasing the number of random vehicle checks to look for unregistered firearms and requiring soldiers to register all firearms with police on the post.

Melissa Gonzales, 37, who moved to the post with her three teenagers the day before the shootings, has noticed small changes.

"I think they're taking extra precautions now," she says, noting that guards now scrutinize the front and back of her ID. "They're more serious. Everyone is just a little more alert."

She didn't known anyone killed or injured in the massacre but feels the grief around her.

"I think when you see military soldiers lose their life in their own territory, it just brings sadness to everyone here," she says.

Michael Craft, 29, who served eight years in the military until February 2007, met his wife, Krishonda, in 2000 at the same building where the gunshots rang out last month. Then it was a sports bar called Sports USA. He says he's been in that building "thousands of times."

"I never thought somebody from the military would ever do something like that. That was the furthest thing from my mind," Craft says.

Krishonda Craft, 31, who decked out their three daughters in felt antlers for Killeen's Christmas parade, says the shootings drew the community together.

The community has weathered the deaths of soldiers for years and knows how to move past adversity, her husband adds.

"They take a lot here on the chin," he says. "This is a tougher town. It happens a lot here. We lose our soldiers. You have to move on through it."

Counting on kindness

For Sheryll Pearson, the pain remains acute as she remembers Christmases past and tries to push through her sadness.

Christmas last year was the best, Pearson says. Her whole family gathered at their home in Bolingbrook, Ill., including Mikey, the youngest of her four children, who was on a two-week leave. It was the last time she saw him.

"Everybody was here. All my kids were together, all my grandchildren. I made a ham dinner," she says. "He was supposed to be home for this Christmas."

Pearson's son, she says, was particularly giving and loved Christmas. He put thought into his gifts, such as the elegant jewelry box painted with birds he bought for her one Mother's Day.

"He knew I loved birds," she says, through tears. "Michael loved to learn and he loved to see places. He was very outgoing."

If he didn't have a military career, he wanted to teach music theory, she says. "But he joined to serve his country and to expand his horizons."

She'll struggle through her first Christmas without Mikey for the sake of her 11 grandchildren, her sole distraction from grief.

Her casualty officer — a soldier the Army assigns to help military families after a loved one dies or is injured while on active duty — pushes her to get out of the house. She calls him "Major."

"Major made me go out Christmas shopping for the grandchildren," she says. "It's just hard."

McCabe, the post's senior chaplain, understands how difficult the holidays are for military families seared by deaths and injuries to loved ones, or fractured by frequent deployments.

This year, in his first Christmas Mass after the tragic shootings at Fort Hood, he says he'll emphasize the power of goodness even amid violence and tragedy.

"You have to believe," McCabe says, "that the kindness and generosity and the love that people have always, always triumphs over evil and violence."

Leinwand reported from Washington. Jayson reported from Fort Hood, Texas.