Former Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning watched as high-ranking Army officials and politicians spoke last week at a memorial ceremony for the victims of the April 2 shooting at Fort Hood.
Manning observed speakers, including President Barack Obama, vow to support and care for families of the victims and those wounded in the attack that left four dead and 16 injured.
“This Army and this nation stands with you for all the days to come,” Obama told more than 3,000 people in attendance.
Manning couldn’t help but be skeptical.
“I didn’t put a lot of credibility in what they were saying,” he said.
Manning said he heard similar promises at a memorial ceremony after another on-post shooting.
On Nov. 5, 2009, former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan opened fire in a crowded medical center, killing 13 and wounding 32. Manning was shot six times during the rampage.
Since then, Manning and other survivors, as well families of those killed, engaged in a public battle with the U.S. government, claiming classification of the 2009 shooting as workplace violence — instead of terrorism — hampered their efforts to obtain medical care, mental health treatment and other benefits.
“The same speeches were given, and the same promises were made,” Manning said. “But when we came to actually ask for help, all we got were roadblocks.”
Manning is one of 19 wounded survivors of the 2009 shooting who joined with the families of nine of those killed in a class-action lawsuit against the Army and the U.S. government.
The suit filed in 2012 claims the government shirked its legal and financial responsibility for the killings by referring to the shooting as workplace violence. The lawsuit ground to a halt after government lawyers were granted a stay to allow for criminal proceedings against Hasan to conclude.
While Hasan was found guilty and sentenced to death after a court-martial in August, Manning and the other plaintiffs in the suit remain frozen in what their attorneys describe as a “legal limbo.”
That’s because Hasan’s court-martial is technically not complete. The finding of guilt and the sentence are not final until the convening authority — the officer who referred the case to trial — reviews and approves the outcome.
That has yet to happen, making it the determining factor in a January decision by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly to allow yet another stay in the case.
“They keep finding excuses,” said retired Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford, a Nov. 5, 2009, survivor and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “I think they hope that we’ll just get frustrated and give up.”
The convening authority has broad powers of review and can uphold sentences, send the case back to trial or even grant clemency, according to former Fort Hood Staff Judge Advocate Richard Rosen.
“He can do anything he wants,” Rosen said. “I suspect that (in Hasan’s case) he’s going to uphold everything.”
The process includes a review of the trial record and will allow Hasan or his defense to present allegations of any error they felt occurred during the proceedings.
According to court filings, the lawyers representing the government estimated the process would not be completed until July.
“The court is extremely reluctant to take any action that would conceivably interfere with the resolution of (Hasan’s) court-martial, particularly given the high profile nature of both this case and the court-martial of Hasan,” Kollar-Kotelly wrote in her Jan. 30 ruling.
A different end
The 34-year-old Army specialist who committed the April 2 Fort Hood shooting ended his own life and will face no such court-martial.
Investigators and Army officials were quick to note there was no indication the shooter, Spc. Ivan Lopez, was linked to terrorism, making it likely the incident will be classified as workplace violence.
Manning said the victims of the latest attack will likely experience some of the same difficulties he and other Nov. 5, 2009, victims struggled with over the past five years.
“The laws are written in a certain way that makes their injuries noncombat-related,” Manning said. “A lot of them may not realize yet how this will impact them.”
As he summed up his experience since the 2009 shooting, Manning had sobering advice for the latest shooting victims.
“I would tell them not to take the government for its word,” he said. “They need to start looking out for their own future.”
Lunsford said families of those killed and the wounded survivors should keep their “eyes and ears open.”
“We got caught up in what sounded good and banked on that being done,” Lunsford said. “That wasn’t the case.”
Lunsford was more optimistic than Manning. He said he hoped the government and the Army learned from the 2009 shooting.
“They really would not want to have the survivors from this shooting out in public saying the same things we were,” he said. “I think this time they’re going to own up and do the right thing; at least I hope that is the case.”