Family of Fort Hood shooting victims talk of loss
By MICHAEL GRACZYK
and NOMAAN MERCHANT
The Associated Press | August 28,2013
Randy Royer, who was shot twice during the Fort Hood shootings, is depicted in a courtroom sketch at the Lawrence William Judicial Center during the sentencing phase for Maj. Nidal Hasan, Tuesday, in Fort Hood, Texas. Hasan was convicted of killing 13 of his unarmed comrades in the deadliest attack ever on a U.S. military base.
FORT HOOD, Texas — Joleen Cahill no longer hears her husband’s footsteps when he comes home. Their Texas house has felt empty for nearly four years, she said, since her husband was fatally shot while trying to stop the gunman who killed 13 people at nearby Fort Hood.
Michael Cahill was the only civilian killed when Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire on unarmed soldiers in a crowded medical building at the sprawling military base. Witnesses said the 62-year-old physician’s assistant was armed only with a chair when he tried to charge Hasan during the November 2009 attack.
“One of the hardest things was being alone for first time in 60 years of my life. No one to come home to at night,” his wife testified Tuesday during the penalty phase of Hasan’s trial. “No conversation. We loved to talk politics.”
Jurors who convicted Hasan last week of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others are now being asked to sentence him to death. Prosecutors are hoping that the emotional testimony from victims’ relatives and soldiers severely wounded in the attack helps convince jurors to hand down a rare military death sentence.
Sheryll Pearson sobbed when she was shown a photo of her son, Pfc. Michael Pearson, hugging her during his graduation.
“We always wanted to see who he was going to become. Now that was taken away from us,” she told jurors. “I found after he died he was going to come home and be married to his high school sweetheart. That was taken from us. Our grandchildren. That was taken from us.”
Both women were among more than a dozen widows, mothers, fathers, children and wounded soldiers who testified over the past two days about their overwhelming grief and attempts at recovery. Witnesses recalled the litany of moments that remind them of what they lost: a voicemail greeting, a box of photos or the thought of a daughter’s lonely walk one day down the aisle.
Prosecutors called their last witness Tuesday afternoon, and the judge called a recess. Hasan said he wouldn’t call witnesses or enter any evidence, though it was unclear if he planned to address jurors before they began deliberating his fate.
It’s Hasan’s last chance to tell jurors what he’s spent the last four years telling the military, judges and journalists: that he believes the killing of unarmed American soldiers preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan was necessary to protect Muslim insurgents.
Hasan, an American-born Muslim, has admitted carrying out the attack and showed no reaction when he was found guilty. He is acting as his own attorney, yet he called no witnesses, declined to testify and questioned only three of prosecutors’ nearly 90 witnesses before he was convicted.
At minimum, the 42-year-old Hasan will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Many of those who testified over the past two days talked about their biggest fear in the long hours after the shooting on Nov. 5, 2009: the appearance of two soldiers at their doorstep, meaning their husband, parent or child was dead. Some said they waited more than 12 hours while trying in vain to call whatever phone numbers they could find.
Teena Nemelka lost the youngest of her four children, Pfc. Aaron Nemelka, whom she called, “my baby.” She talked about her frantic searches for information in the moments after learning about the shooting and about the fear of hearing a knock on her front door.
“You just freeze,” she said. “You don’t want to open that door.”
But the knock came, with “the worst news you could ever hear.”
Philip Warman said the slaying of his wife, Lt. Col. Juanita Warman, “was like I had something ripped out of me.”
“I pretty much drank until the following June,” he said.
He checked into a substance abuse center for 28 days, and had friends remove his weapons from his home because he didn’t trust himself.
He now takes the coins distributed during his Alcoholic Anonymous meetings to Arlington National Cemetery, where his wife is buried next to another Fort Hood victim, Maj. Eduardo Caraveo.
“I push them into the ground at my wife’s grave,” he said.
Walking into the courtroom on Tuesday with a cane, Lt. Col. Randy Royer told jurors that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after being shot in the arm and leg during the attack. The Alabama man has since undergone multiple surgeries but was left disabled.
“Usually when I’m in a large group of people, I have a lot of issues,” he said.
“One of the worst times is when I have to go to pharmacy. They have all the chairs lined up (like the scene of the attack),” he said. “When I walk in there, I don’t do well.”
Prosecutors want Hasan to join just five other U.S. service members currently on military death row. The jury of 13 military officers must be unanimous for such a death sentence, and prosecutors must prove an aggravating factor and present evidence to show the severity of Hasan’s crimes.
No American soldier has been executed since 1961. Many military death row inmates have had their sentences overturned on appeal, which are automatic when jurors vote for the death penalty. The president also must eventually approve a military death sentence.