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Obama honors attack victims at Fort Hood

13 recalled in emotional memorial

By Ben Feller and Devlin Barrett
Associated Press / November 11, 2009

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FORT HOOD, Texas - One by one, President Obama spoke the names and told the stories yesterday of the 13 people slain in the Fort Hood shooting rampage, honoring their memories as he denounced the “twisted logic’’ that led to their deaths.

“No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor,’’ Obama told a crowd estimated at 15,000 on the sprawling Army post. “And for what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice - in this world and the next.’’

He did not name Major Nidal Hasan, the military psychiatrist accused of the killings.

As for the victims and the soldiers who rushed to help them, Obama said, “We need not look to the past for greatness, because it is before our very eyes.’’

The president and his wife, Michelle Obama, began an afternoon of consolation by meeting privately with family members of those killed last week and with those wounded in the attack and their families, and after his speech went to a military hospital to meet with those still recovering from wounds.

Obama used his public remarks at the outdoor memorial service to put a face on those who perished, ranging in age from 19 to 62, as husbands and fathers, immigrants and scholars, optimists and veterans of the war in Iraq. The president spoke to loved ones left behind, saying: “Here is what you must also know: Your loved ones endure through the life of our nation.’’

Below the stage where Obama spoke was a somber tribute to the fallen - 13 pairs of combat boots, each with an inverted rifle topped with a helmet. A picture of each person rested below the boots. After the ceremony, Obama walked solemnly along the row of boots, placing a commander in chief’s “challenge coin,’’ a traditional military keepsake, next to each victim’s photo in tribute.

Then soldiers and loved ones traced the same path to remember those lost and give a final salute, one woman nearly collapsing with grief.

It was Obama’s moment to take on the job of consoler-in-chief, a role that can help to shape a presidency at a time of national tragedy. The president has tried to strike a balanced tone: He has promised a full investigation of the Fort Hood shootings but has said little about it as investigators search for a motive.

Even as Obama honored the dead, there was government finger-pointing over what had been known about Hasan and whether he should have been investigated further.

US officials said yesterday that a Pentagon investigator on a Washington-based terrorism task force looked into Hasan’s background months ago, after being notified of communications between Hasan and radical Islamic imam Anwar al-Awlaki, who had contact in 2001 with two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and who has used his personal website to encourage Muslims around the world to kill US troops in Iraq.

The Defense Department investigator wrote up an assessment of Hasan after reviewing the Army major’s personnel file and the communications. The assessment concluded Hasan did not merit further investigation, in large part because his communications with the imam were centered on a research paper he was writing at the time, and the investigator had concluded Hasan was in fact working on such a paper, the officials said.

The disclosure came as questions swirled about whether opportunities were missed to head off the massacre and the FBI launched its own internal review of how it handled the case, including its response to potentially worrisome information gathered about Hasan beginning in December 2008 and continuing into early this year.

Within hours after the role of the defense investigator on the task force was disclosed, a senior defense official said “based on what we know now, neither the US Army nor any other organization within the Department of Defense knew of Major Hasan’s contacts with any Muslim extremists.’’

Investigators still believe Hasan acted alone, despite his communications with Awlaki, a native-born US citizen who disappeared after being released from a Yemeni jail last year and whose website on Monday praised Hasan as a hero.

One soldier who attended the memorial said the mood at Fort Hood was turning from sadness to anger as soldiers learned more about Hasan’s background.

“A lot of folks are angry because they feel this could have been prevented,’’ said Specialist Brian Hill, 25, from Nashville, who was injured in Iraq and walks with a cane. “Somebody should have been paying attention.’’