Fort Hood survivors to face gunman at trial
Lillington, N.C. • Alonzo Lunsford has trouble getting out of chairs and warns his family to wake him gently. Kathy Platoni can't shake the image of the man who died in a pool of blood at her knees. Shawn Manning still has two bullets in his body and gets easily unnerved by crowds.
Survivors of the 2009 shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 13 people at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas fight these demons daily.
Now after years of delay, they will come face to face with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who goes on trial in the attack starting Tuesday. After dismissing his attorneys, Hasan got permission to represent himself, putting him in the unusual position of asking questions of the very people he admits targeting.
Hasan, a Muslim who argues he was protecting the Taliban from American aggression, was shot by a civilian police officer and is now in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the abdomen down.
Manning dreads the courtroom confrontation.
"I have to keep my composure and not go after the guy," said Manning, a mental health specialist who was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan with Hasan. "I'm not afraid of him, obviously. He's a paralyzed guy in a wheelchair, but it's sickening that he's still living and breathing."
Lunsford a now-retired staff sergeant who was shot seven times relishes the thought of staring at Hasan and telling him that he did not win. Like Manning, he carries two bullets with him one in a small wooden box, the other in his back.
"That man strikes no fear in my heart. He strikes no fear in my family. What he did to me was bad. But the biggest mistake that he made was I survived. So he will see me again," he said as he sat on his porch in Lillington, rubbing the shiny slug between his fingers.
"I will never show any fear in the face of my enemy," he added. "Never."
Platoni just hopes she can keep her composure enough to support the family of Capt. John Gaffaney, the friend and soldier who died next to her.
The families of people who were killed struggle with a roller coaster of emotions, too.
Eduardo Caraveo, whose father, Libardo Eduardo Caraveo, died, took a few weeks of leave from his job as a prison supervisor to deal with his emotions ahead of the trial.
"You're going to hear stuff ... that you don't know how you're going to take," he said.
Joleen Cahill, whose husband, Mike Cahill, was shot six times after he lifted a chair to try to stop Hasan, has struggled with the loneliness of an empty house. Now she wants to ensure that her anger doesn't take over during the trial.
"I want to be the one in control here, not him," she said.
In the large hall where troops were preparing for upcoming deployments, everyone was unarmed. Everyone except Hasan.
Manning, who had gotten married just a few weeks before the shooting, was almost done for the day. Platoni had left the hall and was in a nearby dome-shaped building. Left behind were her friends including Caraveo sitting in a row of chairs.
Then in an instant, lives were changed forever.
"I hear someone yell 'allahu akbar,'" recalled Manning, who had done two previous deployments in Iraq. "Usually something bad is going to follow after that, so I look up at him and he started shooting. He probably fired five or six shots before he shot me in the chest."
For a moment, Manning thought it was a military drill using paint balls. But then he saw the blood pouring from his chest. People were screaming.
Manning crawled to a nook, trying to take cover. Too many people were there, and Hasan kept shooting him. So he played dead.
Soldiers running into the nearby dome shouted there was an attack. Platoni, thinking of her friends, ran over, trying to get through the doors. But other soldiers were already bringing out the wounded. There was her friend Gaffaney, bleeding to death.
The memories are "there all the time when I'm not otherwise actively engaged in patients or doing gardening," Platoni said. "It's something that haunts me constantly."
About 10 minutes after the shooting started, the horror ended. And another began.
Manning and Lunsford spent weeks in hospitals. Both have since retired from the military. Platoni deployed to Afghanistan barely a month later, setting aside the grief and trauma to do her job.
Manning, who lives in Lacey, Wash., and Lunsford continue to fight for military wages they say they lost when officials ruled that the attack was not a terrorist act and their wounds were not related to combat.
Manning still faces surgery to remove at least one bullet from his thigh and possibly one from his back. A few months ago, he returned to work at Fort Lewis. Platoni still works as a clinical psychologist for the military, as well as in her private life in Centreville, Ohio.
They are no longer relaxed in large crowds. Their tempers are more volatile. When Lunsford is asleep, he needs to be awakened with a gentle tap on his foot not shaken like other people. Platoni keeps a loaded gun under her desk.
A few hope that Hasan receives the death penalty.
"The same way he tried to kill us. Or, if he wants to be put to death, and he wants to follow Islamic law, then he can be put to death according to Islamic law, which is by stoning," Lunsford said. "I would love to be the first one, to throw the first pitch. That would be a joy. But we're better than that as a people. We don't do that."
Realistically, Manning says, Hasan may never be put to death. But that may not be a total disappointment.
"Living in a cell, paralyzed for the rest of his life," he says, "is some sort of justice as well."