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For one Ft. Hood victim and his wife, the wait is nearly over

August 20, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning, at his home in Lacey, Wash., holds a photograph from a memorial for victims of a 2009 mass shooting at Ft. Hood, Texas. Manning, who still carries two bullets in his body from the shooting that killed 13 people, testified against Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the accused shooter.
Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning, at his home in Lacey, Wash.,… (Ted S. Warren / Associated…)

FT. HOOD, Texas -- Waiting with her husband as he prepared to testify against Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, Autumn Manning began to feel sick.

“We were both pretty anxious,” she said.  “I don’t know how many times I got sick before we even got to the courthouse.”

Family members of the 13 killed and more than 30 wounded in the shooting have been a constant presence at the Army courthouse, filling a middle row, accompanied by military victim advocates.

Many know one another. Some arrive in groups or pairs, sitting together and taking notes as they scrutinize the judge, the jury of 13 officers and Hasan, who is representing himself and has the option of cross-examining victims. Some, like Manning, arrive with relatives slated to testify and wait in anxious silence for their turn on the stand. The judge routinely warns them and the rest of the spectators to step out if they can’t handle the testimony, which may be both tedious and graphic. They rarely do.

Manning, 37, a hairstylist, had watched her husband prepare to testify at home in Lacey, Wash., about 55 miles south of Seattle.

Retired Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning, 37, now an Army mental health counselor, tried to follow his own advice to troubled soldiers and visualize his challenge — what it would be like to take the stand. It was the unexpected that worried him.

The shooting changed and continues to shape his life. Manning had been preparing for his third deployment when he was shot six times, one bullet narrowly missing his heart. He still has bullets lodged in his thigh and back. He has joined other victims in suing the government to classify the attack as terrorism so they will be compensated accordingly.

Last year, Manning appeared in a video trying to draw attention to the issue, which the couple often speak out about in interviews and online.

But they had not returned to the base until this month.

They flew back the second week in August.  A military escort met them at the airport and took them to a hotel on the base where they would stay with other victims and their families. Autumn Manning didn’t feel safe, no matter how many guards were posted at the gate as they passed, but the couple didn’t have a choice.

When Manning’s testimony was delayed, they shared meals and outings with other families, an eclectic group of men and women of various ages and races who became friends and sounding boards over the years as the court-martial dragged on.

“We found it really healing to be with the other victims who were there,” she said. “You feel that closeness that you’ve been through something nobody else can relate to.”

Autumn Manning was worried about Hasan.

“My big thing was is he going to cross-examine my husband, how is he going to react to that?” she said.

Finally, the call came.

It was a Friday morning, Aug. 9. Manning wore a dark suit. Soldiers again escorted them in, past sharpshooters and rows of barriers into the heavily fortified courthouse.

They were placed in a holding room to wait as other witnesses testified, and sat in silence.  

“It was so tense in there, just the two of us. I didn’t say anything because I knew he was doing his own thing,” Manning said.

Finally, shortly before noon, the soldiers arrived again, and the Mannings walked toward the windowless courtroom.

They walked in together. She took a seat near the end of the second row in the gallery with other victims’ families as Shawn walked toward the stand.

To get there, he had to pass Hasan.

He did so without faltering.

As her husband took the stand, Autumn Manning watched him take a long, hard look at the man who shot him.

She watched Hasan, too — who looked much older than she remembered from pretrial hearings, “nonchalant,” she said. That made her angry.

“How dare you look at my husband?” she thought. “He has no remorse for what he did.”

The atmosphere in the room felt close, she said, a “really small room for so many people.”

She watched the jury, all officers of Hasan’s rank or higher. She found them intimidating in their dress uniforms. If felt as if they were looking down at her from a great height.

Military prosecutors questioned Shawn Manning about the events that day four years ago. He had been sitting at a station in the soldier readiness processing center awaiting treatment, he said, sitting in the front row of chairs, texting his wife. Then he heard someone in front of him shout, “Allahu akbar!” -- Arabic for “God is great.”

“That’s when I saw Hasan start shooting,” Manning said.

Autumn Manning watched her husband maintain his composure as he relived the shooting. He was edgy as prosecutors prepared to ask him to identify Hasan, pointing before they even asked.

“He’s there,” Shawn Manning said, twice, staring Hasan down.

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