FT. HOOD, TEXAS — President Obama tried to console a grieving military Tuesday, telling the families of those killed in last week's shooting rampage at Ft. Hood that their "loved ones endure through the life of our nation."
"We come together filled with sorrow for the 13 Americans that we have lost; with gratitude for the lives that they led; and with a determination to honor them through the work we carry on," Obama said.
As he remembered the dead, offering personal details about each one, Obama also praised the modern military and reminded service members that their mission remained difficult and unfinished.
The speech left some of the thousands of military personnel and civilians in attendance in tears. It appeared that Obama too had to compose himself at times.
Many presidents, like Ronald Reagan when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, have assumed this role of counselor in chief. And Like George W. Bush after Sept. 11 -- not quite eight months into his first term -- Obama's time to offer solace came early in his presidency; it also followed his recent somber visit to Dover Air Force Base to salute the bodies of service members and Drug Enforcement Administration agents killed in Afghanistan.
Before the ceremony, held on a sunny day under a flawless sky, survivors of the shootings -- some with arms in slings, some on crutches -- carefully made their way down a set of steps to seats close to the stage. They were followed, solemnly, by families of the dead.
Many members of the audience were military and wore fatigues. Some were civilians from nearby Killeen. Small children played on the grass as the adults listened to the president, who said the tragedy was all the more painful because the shooting had occurred not overseas, but at home.
"This is a time of war," Obama said. "Yet these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle. They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of . . . this great American community. This is the fact that makes the tragedy . . . even more incomprehensible."
Obama directed his remarks to the troops, the nation and, perhaps most movingly of all, the families of the 12 military personnel and one civilian shot down Thursday at the Soldier Readiness Processing Center.
"We knew these men and women as soldiers and caregivers," he said. "You knew them as mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; sisters and brothers.
"But here is what you must also know: Your loved ones endure through the life of our nation. Their memory will be honored in the places they lived and by the people they touched. Their life's work is our security, and the freedom that we all too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness -- that is their legacy."
Along with the eulogizing, Obama called for firm but fair justice for the Army psychiatrist who allegedly shot his fellow soldiers.
Without explicitly noting the Muslim faith of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, Obama called for tolerance as he denounced those who invoke faith to justify violence.
The president, who was accompanied to Ft. Hood by First Lady Michelle Obama, spoke from a stage in front of the III Corps building, headquarters of the base's top brass. One giant American flag, draped over the building's windows, formed a backdrop while another rustled at half-staff.
A row of gray shipping containers was erected far from the stage, forming a wall behind the audience and creating a huge amphitheater.
Obama noted that today is Veterans Day, and that the military continued to fight two wars. He is scheduled to meet with his war council today to discuss strategy options in Afghanistan.
The nation's history, Obama said, is "filled with heroes," but this generation has distinguished itself as well.
"We need not look to the past for greatness," he said, "because it is before our very eyes."
The president also praised those who aided not only the shooting victims, but also Hasan, who was wounded in a shootout and remains hospitalized.
"We are a nation of laws whose commitment to justice is so enduring that we would treat a gunman and give him due process, just as surely as we will see that he pays for his crimes," Obama said.
The alleged gunman has been described as a devout Muslim who was despondent over his scheduled deployment to Afghanistan. Witnesses said that he shouted "Allahu akbar!" -- Arabic for "God is great" -- before discharging more than 100 rounds.
FBI officials have said that they are trying to determine whether Hasan, 39, might have acted alone or been directed by others.
While the president did not suggest a motive or mention Islam, he left room for the possibility that there may have been an ideological motivation.