To hear one writer tell it, there is something seriously wrong with Fort Hood and the surrounding community.
That’s the overarching message of an article in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, titled, “The Only Thing I Knew How to Do Was Kill People”: Inside the Rash of Unexplained Deaths at Fort Hood.
However, while the article’s author, award-winning freelance journalist May Jeong, is to be commended for her exhaustive research and reporting on the deaths and disappearances of more than a dozen Fort Hood soldiers, she is only telling part of the story.
The four-part article, which stretches for more than 6,200 words, goes out of its way to paint the Army post and Killeen with a broad brush of cynicism and suspicion. And while some of her observations and questions are spot-on and deserving of serious discussion, others are little more than surface-level impressions designed to move the narrative along.
For example, she talks of being welcomed to the area by the sight of a dead deer severed in two along the side of State Highway 195. Sadly, that’s not unusual in Central Texas — especially in October, when she visited. But to the author, it’s symbolic.
Also, she refers to a discussion with the sister of Vanessa Guillen, the Fort Hood soldier who disappeared last year and was later found murdered in the eastern part of the county. Guillen’s sister describes a “bad vibe” during a visit to Fort Hood after Vanessa’s disappearance, and how her rosary tore apart in the palm of her hand, with the beads scattering on the concrete.
The author also comments the “vast emptiness that is most of the state can make you feel inconsequential, as if you could disappear and no one would know you ever lived.”
Jeong’s writing is obviously meant to convey a sense of hopelessness and foreboding, which is exactly the tone she was trying to set for the article.
Another disturbing aspect of the piece is that many of the author’s impressions are shaped or echoed by her interview subjects — many of whom are aggrieved family members of soldiers who lost their lives on or near Fort Hood.
Not surprisingly, these family members have little good to say about Fort Hood, its command chain or the surrounding community.
Many interviewees for the article offered cautionary warnings, urging the author to lock her doors, and not to drink the water while visiting. A Guillen family member even told Jeong that there was only one hotel in town where she could safely stay.
The author also talked to disillusioned service members about their fears and concerns, as well as some local residents, many of whom she described as resigned to the post’s problems.
All pretty negative stuff, even if it was well-written.
After reading the sobering, lengthy piece, it would be tempting to conclude that Killeen and Fort Hood are irrevocably broken, and that nothing is likely to change.
But for those who live near this Army post and care for our community, that conclusion is seriously flawed.
None of us are blind to the problems that have been cited in the article, or the issues brought to the forefront by some of the family members who have been impacted by the death of a loved one stationed here.
But this community has a lot of positives, and people who have lived here for more than a few years are quick to point them out.
Apparently, the Vanity Fair author didn’t talk to any of those people during her visit.
Every year, hundreds of Army retirees decide to make their home here — not just because of the weather or access to military medical care. They choose to stay in the area because they see its value — and they value its residents.
When Army commanders are stationed at Fort Hood for a second time, they are quick to remark that they are glad to be back and to laud the community for its strong support of the soldiers who serve here.
Despite what the author may have perceived during her visit, the Killeen community cares deeply about Fort Hood --and about its soldiers, families and veterans who are in need of assistance.
That spirit was on display last week when dozens of local motorcyclists provided an escort to the veterans cemetery for the family of a local veteran who lost her five-year battle with breast cancer.
That spirit was evident in the two Fort Hood soldiers who risked their lives to help people safely escape from the raging fire that consumed the Hilton Garden Inn hotel in February.
That spirit was visible when Fort Hood soldiers worked around the clock to deliver potable water to surrounding towns impacted by the severe winter storm early this year.
Local churches and civic organizations continue to offer support to families of deployed soldiers on several levels.Veterans groups do their part, as well.
Each year during the holiday season, hundreds of community members take time to prepare and place wreaths on the graves of fallen military members at the Central Texas State Veterans Cemetery.
And also each year, Fort Hood thanks the community with a massive Fourth of July celebration, complete with bands, activities and a large fireworks show.
Of course, just because the Fort Hood community has much to be proud of doesn’t also mean that significant concerns don’t exist.
The spate of soldier deaths connected to the post, culminating with the discovery of Guillen’s remains last year, shined a harsh spotlight on Fort Hood and the Army in general.
We would be wrong to diminish or ignore the importance of these tragic events or the impacts they had on the victims’ families.
However, the Army deserves credit for launching a wide-ranging investigation into Fort Hood’s climate and command structure — which uncovered “major flaws” and led to the firing or suspension of 14 officials.
Fort Hood deserves credit as well, for embracing the changes mandated by the Pentagon and implementing reforms that likely will enhance accountability and improve our soldiers’ well-being and morale.
Nevertheless, the combined impact of the Fort Hood deaths, the Army investigation and now the highly critical Vanity Fair article paint a very unflattering picture of our city and military post.
And as a community, we will have to deal with the fallout.
Constant negative publicity can hurt the city when it comes to recruiting businesses, drawing tourists and conventions, and attracting new residents.
It would be short-sighted and irresponsible to simply dismiss some of the impressions found in the Vanity Fair article as nonsense. We may view our community in a different light, but the Killeen area’s overall image still needs refurbishing.
If outsiders view Killeen as a city with high crime, poor aesthetics and an unwelcoming populace, that reputation can only be changed from within. To do that, we have to make some big changes — and then devote the necessary resources to carry them out.
The Vanity Fair author refers to Killeen at one point as “an unremarkable town.”
Most local residents would contend that just the opposite is true.
Our town and our post may be far from perfect, but as a community, there is nothing we can’t fix.
Let’s all do what we can to make that happen.