Fort Hood Notebook

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Killeen — “I’m blessed.” Those are the two most important words I jotted down as I stood in the courtyard of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s apartment complex, 27 hours after he’d allegedly shot 55 men and women. Thirteen of his 55 military and civilian victims at Fort Hood had died, including Pvt. Francheska Velez, a pregnant, 21-year-old Iraqi war veteran from Chicago, and Michael Grant Cahill, a 62-year-old physician’s assistant from Cameron.

“I’m blessed.”  I wrote those words in black ink, on a crumpled piece of yellow legal paper as I listened to Alice Thompson, the apartment manager. The phrase is simple, yet in this context shocking.

Thompson sat in a dark green, plastic chair just outside her apartment door.  Through her front window, I could see a fully decorated, full-sized, artificial Christmas tree and hear her television set.  Earlier she’d gone inside, then called to her neighbors, “It’s on TV.  Come in.”  I presumed she meant an interview, probably with her.  A network camera crew sat on the steps leading up to Hasan’s second floor apartment – number 9.  A central Texas camera crew prepped for a live shot in a grassy area that would become a shrine to the 13 dead.  Uplink trunks hummed in the distance.

I was sitting at a picnic table in the courtyard.  The table’s white paint was peeling off like old Scotch tape.

“Toy trucks,” I scribbled on my piece of paper.  Several were scattered not too far from my feet.  One was red and bigger than the others.  In my mind’s eye I could see a 2-year-old playing with them, perhaps a 2-year-old like Kimberly Munley’s.

Munley was the 35-year-old, petite, tattooed, mother of two and police sergeant who had charged toward Hasan, firing her pistol, as he fired his two pistols at her until she dropped with multiple gunshot wounds. Within seconds, Munley’s partner too down Hasan while he tried to reload. Munley had been rushed to Killeen’s Metroplex hospital, though no one would confirm it officially.

I’d arrived at Metro six-and-a-half hours after the shooting had started.  As I’d walked in the hospital, an exiting employee told me she’d been working for five hours.  The hospital worker was going outside to hide in her car for a while – her throat hurt from talking to so many people.  But she was smiling.  I didn’t quite understand that smile at the moment. I thought perhaps she was simply being polite.

Susan Kolodziejczyk, the hospital’s executive director of community relations, gave me the hospital’s official run-down:  Metro had received seven patients; one was deceased; two were flown to Seton hospital in Round Rock; two were driven to Scott & White in Temple; and two had undergone surgery at Metro, did well, were in ICU and were stable and alert.

“Were there any women?”

Two were female, one of whom was transported to Scott & White; the other was at Metro in ICU, she said.  She emphasized, though, that she couldn’t release additional information because of confidentiality rules.

Corps PatchInstead of dealing with murder and national press that Thursday evening, Kolodziejczyk was supposed to be dressed in a ball gown at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center.  Metroplex Health System’s annual black tie gala and fundraiser was scheduled for Nov. 5.  With its Hooray for Hollywood theme, it was expected to raise $100,000.  But half of the attendees wouldn’t be there. They were dealing with the aftermath of a killing spree perpetrated by an Army MD – a psychiatrist, in fact. Therefore they only expected to raise half that amount and whatever monies were raised would be donated to the military families affected by the massacre.

“Beat-up tables,” I wrote as I sat at the picnic table at Casa Del Norte apartments.  “Mops.  Brooms.”  They leaned near various apartment doors.  “Grills.”  An assortment of weathered charcoal grills dotted the courtyard.  “Bikes.”  They were chained to the steps leading up to the second floor where Hasan lived–second door from the end, to my left, as I gazed up at it. “Can you believe a major, an MD, lived here?” I said to a television producer sitting across from me.

“I guess if you’re not into material things.” He barely looked up from his Blackberry and iPhone.

I stared at the apartment doors.  They were mismatched in fading paint and design, and not on purpose.  One door was covered in footprints as if someone had gotten angry and kicked it many times.  I was upset that the doors to my Mercedes-Benz had dings in them.  When I’d parked it at a convenience store just an hour earlier and jumped out to ask a man for directions to 1801 N. Fourth St., he’d said, “You looking for his apartment?”

We both knew who his was.

The man gave me perfect directions, then told me that his wife worked at Fort Hood.  She’d barely missed the massacre, arriving on post a mere three or four minutes after the shooting had started.  He graphically described the blood covering the floors, the tourniquets and strewn clothing.

“You a reporter?”

I nodded.

He grinned, muttered ut-oh, and quickly pressed his hand over the logo on his shirt.  His employer had instructed him not to talk to the press.  “You going over there by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Well, don’t get out of your car.  It’s not a good neighborhood.”

As I drove, I pulled off my Rolex and tucked it into my Levi’s pocket.  I guess you could say I’m into material things.

The television producer grabbed his Blackberry and iPhone and disappeared.  I watched the fall sunset transform the leaves and the grass into a golden glow.  I wondered if that’s what heaven looked like.  I didn’t really want to think about heaven right then.  I didn’t want to think about the 13 dead.  If I did, I’d get emotional and I wouldn’t be able to do my job.

I focused instead on the apartment manager with her drooping eyes and her large, plastic, insulated mug of liquid.  She and some other residents were loudly complaining about the big name press that had contacted them.  They didn’t want to do any interviews, they said.  But I got the feeling that they did.  I moseyed over.  “Mind if I eavesdrop?”

“No.”

“Do you have many majors, many MDs, living here?”

They had many officers living there, she said, and pointed out their doors.  “But he’s the highest ranking.”  Hasan had moved here in late July or early August – she couldn’t remember which – and had paid six months of rent in advance.

Being into material things, I calculated that he was going to be losing nearly two months of rent, no matter if he’d shipped out to Afghanistan, died in the hospital of his gunshot wounds, or died in prison.  I wondered if he was angry about that – losing two months of rent, if he wasn’t into material things.

It wasn’t all that unusual for tenants to pay in advance, the manager said, but usually only two or three months.  She talked on about Hasan and how he frequently wore his white Muslim clothing.  And then that’s when she said it – that whenever another tenant passed Hasan and greeted him with a simple “how you doing,” Hasan always responded, “I’m blessed.”

I’m blessed.

Those words confused me.  Just an hour or so before, I’d sat at Metro hospital listening to the doctors who’d responded to Hasan’s victims.

It’d already been a busy day at Metro, when rumors started circulating about mass casualties at Fort Hood, said Dr. Scott McAninch, Metro’s emergency room medical director.  The first patient arrived soon after – in cardio-pulmonary arrest with a gunshot wound to the chest, collapsing the airway.  Anesthesiologist Kelly Matlock inserted a chest tube and began CPR.  Still, the injured was dead on arrival.

Quickly, six more patients rolled through the ER doors.  Triage began.  Matlock checked victims and resuscitated those who were not breathing.  Patients were intubated.  IVs were started.  Four patients were sent to other hospitals.  By 2:15 p.m., general surgeon Gail Burbridge was called over from his office just across the hospital parking lot.  Within 30 to 40 minutes, he was in the operating room doing thoracic surgery.  Bariatric surgeon Senthil Sankaralingam was exiting a plane from Dallas to Killeen when he got the call.  Minutes later, he was in surgery with Burbridge.

A large-caliber bullet had pierced the lower abdomen of their patient, perforating his colon, bowel and abdominal wall.  There was another gunshot wound to his chest.  An hour-and-a-half to two hours later, Hasan’s victim was out of surgery and stable, though three fragments remained his in lower abdomen.  By that night, the patient was awake and alert.

Cardio-thoracic surgeon Dr. Byung Chung’s patient was taking longer.  She’d suffered three gunshot wounds to the legs.  One bullet had severed an artery in her left leg.  She was in shock and bleeding out fast.  She needed a transfusion.  Military tourniquets applied to both of her legs by Army medics at the post had kept her alive so far.  But Dr. Chung needed to save that left leg.  He grafted her veins.  Still, she needed a second surgery on Friday, which he performed.

I’m blessed.  That’s what the man who had done this had said.

Thursday night, I’d watched a police officer enter Susan Kolodziejczyk’s office.  In the ER that same night, I’d watched perhaps a half-dozen police officers walk in and ask for another officer’s room.

Repeatedly, I asked Kolodziejczyk if a wounded police officer was at her hospital.  Her mouth opened.  No words came out.  I supplied them for her:  “You can’t confirm or deny that.”

Friday, I saw a uniformed police officer carrying a gift.

“How’s Kim?” I said.

He replied that he didn’t know, he hadn’t seen her yet.

Kolodziejczyk didn’t need to confirm that Munley was there.  When the doctors said their female patient should be walking in a few days and recovered in a few weeks, I knew they were talking about her.  And that’s when I understood why the hospital staffers had been walking around smiling – they were proud of their work.  To the world, Kim Munley was a hero.  To the doctors at Metroplex hospital, Dr. Matlock, who was there from the beginning, was a hero and they wanted the world to know that too.

As I stood next to Hasan’s apartment manager and heard those words – “I’m blessed” – I thought about my mother and her former pastor.  He was a retired military chaplain, and he taught my mother and her fellow church members to constantly say, “I’m blessed and highly favored.”

Despite being a Christian myself, I always wondered why he thought someone should be blessed and highly favored just because he or she is a Christian.  To me, “I’m blessed and highly favored” sent a message that Christians believe they are superior and entitled.  I didn’t – and still don’t – understand that because my Jesus loves everyone equally.

But as I stood in the courtyard of Hasan’s apartment complex, in the waning sun of a stunningly beautiful fall day, and heard the words “I’m blessed,” I wondered if he too felt “highly favored” and if he believed that was what gave him the right to gun down his fellow soldiers and civilian co-workers.

Suzy Spencer covered the Fort Hood shootings as a freelance producer for ABC News.