KILLEEN — Three small boys, all children or grandchildren of those killed on Nov. 5, 2009, approached the stage as about 800 people quietly watched.
They placed their hands over their hearts and began to speak in unison: “I pledge allegiance to the flag...”
The audience quickly joined in, creating a resounding, unifying “Pledge of Allegiance” inside the Killeen Civic and Conference Center on Friday.
It was one many emotional, yet also patriotic, moments that marked the long-awaited dedication ceremony of the November 5, 2009, Memorial, which honors the 12 soldiers and 1 civilian who were killed and dozens wounded in the mass shooting that day.
“The memorial itself will always be a sobering reminder of what we lost,” said Maj. Gen. John Uberti, deputy commander for III Corps and Fort Hood.
He was one of several speakers at the nearly three-hour event, which ended with the families of the fallen, the wounded and others visiting the memorial adjacent to the conference center.
The $400,000 memorial — which was paid for through donations and in-kind services — includes a gazebo, 13 statues symbolizing those killed and a flag pole in the center.
Wording on the memorial also list the names of those wounded, including Sgt. 1st Class Paul Martin.
Still a full-time soldier in the active Guard and Reserves, Martin traveled from his duty station in New York to attend the ceremony in Killeen and see the memorial for the first time.
“It blew my mind,” Martin said of the memorial. It also “tells you the story” of what happened on Nov. 5, 2009, and will allow future generations to understand what happened on that day, he said.
Dignitaries, which included Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and other guests at the ceremony seemed equally impressed.
“It’ll last for a thousand years,” said U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. “It’s gorgeous.”
Uberti said those who died “made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our nation,” and the strength their families have shown is an inspiration to all.
“This memorial is the torch that keeps them alive in all us,” said the two-star general.
Texas Purple Hearts — the state equivalent of the federal Purple Heart Medal — were also awarded to the soldiers who were wounded or killed. For the those who died in the attack, family members accepted the award.
As the governor presented the medals, Abbott spoke to each soldier and family individually for about a minute as the audience quietly watched on.
“He asked some very thoughtful questions about how me and my family have been doing,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joy Clark, a medic who was shot by Nidal Hasan, the former Army major and psychiatrist who was convicted in the attack.
Hasan was found guilty in August 2013 on 13 counts of premeditated murder, and was sentenced to death. He is currently on death row at Fort Leavenwoth, Kan., awaiting appeals.
Friday’s ceremony marked another chapter in the lives of the dozens of families and soldiers who were impacted the most on Nov. 5, 2009, when Hasan, armed with a pair of handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, opened fire in a medical processing station for deploying troops.
The fallen and wounded soldiers, many of whom are no longer in the Army, were awarded the federal Purple Heart medal last April at Fort Hood, after a lengthy battle with the Department of Defense, which originally classified the shooting as workplace violence. An act by Congress reclassified the shooting as a terror attack, paving the way for the Purple Hearts, awarded to soldiers who are killed or wounded in combat. The Texas Purple Heart is similar, but doesn’t carry the benefits of the federal version.
The families and wounded also came back to the Fort Hood area in 2013 for Hasan’s court-martial, and in the years before that for pre-trial hearings.
With no more looming events or hearings at Fort Hood, it’s uncertain when the families and veterans will unite again.
“I hope this isn’t the last time we get together,” said former Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, who was shot multiple times by Hasan.
The memorial, however, may be a reason for them to return.
“It’s hard coming back here,” said former Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning, who was also shot several times by Hasan.
But he said he wants to return in the future — to show his family members the memorial.
There’s also talk of a reunion in 2018 in Wisconsin, were several of those who died and wounded were from.
In any event, “we will be there for each other,” said Joleen Cahill, the widow of Michael Cahill, the only civilian to die in the shooting.
Michael Cahill, a retired chief warrant officer 2, was working as a physician’s assistant at the processing center when Hasan began firing his weapons at unarmed soldiers. Witnesses said Cahill stormed the shooter that day, attempting to stop him with a chair before he was gunned down.
In May 2011, Cahill was posthumously awarded the Secretary of the Army Award for Valor for his actions on Nov. 5, 2009, and on Friday, his family was presented with gubernatorial recognition from the Texas governor.
His grandson, Brody, was on the stage to help lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the ceremony.
Those who died were “heroes, guides and peacemakers,” Joleen Cahill said. They leave behind “seeds of hope and joy, honor and laughter.”
The families, she said, “continue to push through ... There are new days ahead.”