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Ft. Hood shooting survivors recall their ordeal

On a day of prayers in Texas, the images from last week haunt them. Officials give no motive as the suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, remains hospitalized.

November 09, 2009|Ashley Powers

FT. HOOD, TEXAS — On this Sunday more than any other, Shemaka Hairston needed to pray.

She survived last week's harrowing rampage at this base, in which 13 people died and dozens were wounded. A few feet from where she crouched under a desk, a soldier was shot and killed.

Hairston, 29, applied pressure to a co-worker's wounds as he repeatedly recited the Lord's Prayer. After he was airlifted to a hospital, she broke down and cried.

So she and another co-worker, Joi Swan, 48, went to an early service Sunday in nearby Killeen, Texas, as the nation struggled to make sense of the carnage.

Witnesses said the gunman entered Ft. Hood's Soldier Readiness Processing Center on Thursday as hundreds of troops were completing paperwork and being immunized in preparation for deployment overseas.

Carrying a 5.7-millimeter semiautomatic pistol and a .357 magnum, he fired more than 100 rounds before being shot by two of the base's police officers, officials said.

The suspect, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a 39-year-old Army psychiatrist, remained at a military hospital in San Antonio, where he was in critical but stable condition. He was breathing on his own after being taken off a ventilator.

Officials have declined to outline a motive, but people who know Hasan have said he was a deeply religious Muslim who considered the war on terrorism a "war on Islam" and dreaded the prospect of deploying to Afghanistan this month. He is also suspected of writing Internet posts likening suicide bombers to heroic soldiers.

At Ft. Hood's 73rd Street Chapel, where the stained-glass windows depict soldiers in uniform, Col. Frank Jackson urged the community to come together and push through "this valley of the shadow of darkness."

He also prayed for Hasan's family, who "find themselves in a position that no person ever desires to be -- to try and explain the unexplainable."

In a neighborhood called Pershing Park, Pvt. Joseph Foster, 21, was grappling with what had happened. Four comrades from his 20th Engineer Battalion were killed. He and 10 others were wounded.

A bullet struck him in the left hip and, as he spoke to reporters, he leaned on a wooden cane that he had bought a while back for show.

After he was released from the hospital Friday, Foster kissed his wife, Mandy, 23, and hugged his son, Liam, 2, and his daughter, Keilee, born just 6 weeks ago. He tried to watch the news. He couldn't.

"You don't want to relive it over and over," said Foster, a trim man with tattoos of a Celtic cross and the words "Crazy White Boy." His wife said he hadn't been sleeping well.

Foster is to deploy to Afghanistan in January. His wife doesn't want him to go. But, she added, "I feel more confident that at least over there he can fire back."

Hairston, a licensed vocational nurse, was struggling too. On Thursday, she had been giving shots to soldiers at the readiness center. "I heard 'aaaaa' and then 'pop, pop, pop' and I thought, 'Who in the world would shoot fireworks in here?' "

Then she smelled gun smoke.

She and about half a dozen others dived under a cherrywood desk. They heard more pops. She called 911 and was so scared that she couldn't think of the building's address.

"I couldn't see him shooting but I felt his presence next to me," she said.

A third round of pops began.

These sounded closer. She opened her eyes: A nearby soldier had been struck on his left side.

Once police arrived, she checked for his pulse. There wasn't one.

She surveyed the rest of the room. She tried to give medical help where she could. "It was a war zone. I was in the military and I never encountered anything like that in the military," she said.

Meanwhile, Swan and a co-worker had gone out for lunch. Once they heard about the shooting, they discarded the meal and sped back to the center.

About 20 people, including Hairston, were huddled near the employee entrance.

"Everybody had blood on them. Every single person," Swan said.

Hairston and others were treating a co-worker with a cut over his left eye. Someone had found a stray turquoise polo shirt; someone else pulled out a knife to cut it. Hairston used the cloth as a pressure dressing.

"He kept saying, 'Shemaka, help me!' and I said, 'You need to start saying, "Jesus help me!" ' "

So the soldier prayed.

The group eventually moved him, on a board, onto a helicopter.

Later, Hairston visited him in the hospital with flowers and balloons.

"Thank you for helping me to hold on," he said.

That afternoon haunts Hairston. When she saw Hasan's picture on TV, she realized he had visited the readiness center several times before the shooting.

"I looked in his face last week, and this week he's the one terrorizing us," she said.

She also can't shake images of the dead soldier. She wishes she knew his name.

So on Sunday, she and Swan settled on a way to cope.

They drove to Swan's church, Destiny World Outreach Center.

They knelt down and bowed their heads.

--

ashley.powers@latimes.com

Times photographer Barbara Davidson, at Fort Hood, contributed to this report.

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