WASHINGTON – Two grieving families walked through endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery on a cool autumn day to pay their respects to two soldiers they never met.
But they are forever linked to Maj. Libardo Eduardo Careveo and Lt. Col. Juanita Warman, bound by tragedy. Their relatives and both soldiers were among 13 people gunned down in a Fort Hood, Texas, shooting rampage two years ago that left more than two dozen others wounded.
Staying connected with the other victims' families has helped in the grieving process, although they may never truly heal, they said.
"We are meeting with some of the family members who live locally here. There's just an extension of family and (we're) just wanting to reconnect with them on this second anniversary," said Keely Cahill Vanacker, whose father Michael Grant Cahill was killed on Nov. 5, 2009. "Many of us just consider each other, from those who were first responders to (the) wounded, an extension of family now. And it may not be something where we're together at Thanksgiving or we are able to call each other every day. ... But two years later, we still have a close relationship."
No public memorials were planned at Fort Hood to mark the second anniversary of the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military installation.
On Saturday in a small private ceremony, some victims' relatives planned to place wreaths on the fence that now surrounds the boarded-up building where the shootings occurred. Michael Cahill's widow, Joleen, placed the first wreath there a few months after the rampage, and since then relatives of other victims, the wounded and even emergency personnel have gathered there on some holidays for private ceremonies to honor those who died.
A large public ceremony isn't necessary as the families continue to work through their grief and find their own ways of honoring their relatives, said Kerry Cahill, another daughter of the physician assistant who died that day after trying to stop the gunman with a chair. Her family has not moved any items out of his study, often orders his favorite chocolate dessert and constantly talks about him — his love of books and helping people, she said.
"The thing I've heard a lot of families who've lost people in Iraq and in Afghanistan (say) is that they just don't want people to forget," Kerry Cahill said. "People don't bring it up because they don't want to remind you — well, I remind myself every day. I don't want people to forget that it happened, and I don't want people to forget my father."
On that sunny autumn day two years ago, a gunman wearing an Army combat uniform stood near the front door of a Fort Hood medical building where deploying and returning soldiers received vaccines and other tests. He shouted "Allahu Akbar!" — which means "God is great!" in Arabic — and opened fire, witnesses said. Some soldiers thought it was a training exercise.
He rapidly fired, pausing only to reload, shooting at soldiers hiding under desks and those fleeing the building, according to witnesses. Capt. John Gaffaney was fatally shot after throwing a chair at the gunman. Spt. Jason Dean "J.D." Hunt, Staff Sgt. Justin DeCrow and Pfc. Michael Pearson died while trying to protect several nurses at the back of the building. The others who died, most in the front area, were Capt. Russell Seager, Sgt. Amy Krueger, Spc. Frederick Greene, Pfc. Aaron Nemelka, Pfc. Kham Xiong and Pvt. Francheska Velez, who was pregnant.
Some witnesses identified the gunman as Maj. Nidal Hasan, an American-born Muslim who was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan the following month. His trial is set for March. If convicted of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder, he faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
For Leila Hunt Willingham, much of the shock and numbness didn't start to wear off until after the first anniversary of the death of her brother, J.D. Hunt, she said.
"I think it is a little harder for me this year just because I am starting to feel and starting to experience some more things associated with losing him," said Willingham, who also went to Washington, D.C., and was to return to Fort Hood to place a wreath on the fence Saturday. "The last time I saw my brother was in August of '09, and that date keeps getting so much farther away, and that's the part that really hurts."
While there is a "ripple effect" with this kind of loss, Willingham said she has been coping by talking about her brother and getting involved in military programs that help relatives of slain soldiers. And although the high-profile nature of the Fort Hood case put the victims' families in the national spotlight — which they have not wanted or liked — it has "given us a voice to be able to help other people ... and we can use it for many things, like talking about suicide prevention," Willingham said.
The families said trying to heal is a continuous journey.
Joleen Cahill said that while she misses talking to her husband every day, "I feel like I'm at a point where I'm not falling into quite so many deep potholes, and I'm going forward and honoring and remembering and doing what I can to honor all those lost."
Angela K. Brown reported from Fort Worth, Texas.
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