MADISON, Wis. – For nearly a year in Afghanistan, a tightly knit Army Reserve unit kept the memories of their comrades killed during a shooting rampage Fort Hood close. But not too close.
The Madison-based 467th Combat Stress Control Detachment wore black wrist bands and dedicated field clinics to their fallen friends. At the same, they poured themselves into their jobs, blocking out their grief by helping combat troops deal with theirs.
"It was a relief to be there (in Afghanistan)," Sgt. Kara Kortenkamp said Saturday. "We could sort of throw ourselves into that and focus on that and feel, in a way, normal again, to be working and be productive."
The 467th, a unit filled with psychologists, social workers and therapists, arrived at the sprawling Texas Army base on Nov. 4, a day before police say Maj. Nidal Hasan shot 13 people at the base to death, including the 467th's Maj. Libardo E. Caraveo, Sgt. Amy S. Krueger and Capt. Russell Seager, and wounded dozens more.
Weeks later, the 467th left for Afghanistan. The unit returned to the U.S. days ago and members filtered out to their homes states this weekend.
Kortenkamp, of La Crosse, Wis., appeared at a news conference alongside other members of the 467th unit. Army public information officials barred them from talking about what happened during the Nov. 5 shootings, citing the pending court case against Hasan. He is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 attempted premeditated murder, and a military hearing to determine whether he will stand trial is to resume later this month.
Shortly after the killings at Fort Hood, the Army provided unit members with chaplains and counselors and offered them the choice of whether to deploy. The unit's commander, Maj. Laura Suttinger of Fort Atkinson, Wis., said in the end everyone chose to go.
"Throughout our deployment we were able to persist by helping each other along the way," she said, her voice cracking. "We did all this in honor of our fallen and wounded comrades."
Once in Afghanistan, 467th members talked about the shootings with each other and in the beginning the work gave them refuge.
"It was easy to delve into that and forget about the troubles that you left behind," Suttinger said.
Unit members said they helped soldiers deal with combat stress as well as other problems ranging from issues between soldiers and their troubles at home. The unit also taught classes on stress and anger management and improving sleep.
The pace of establishing outposts and setting up treatment programs was so intense no one had time to dwell on their grief, said Sgt. Dick Hurtig of Madison, but "there's no way you can't think about something like that."
Everyone in the unit wore black wrist bands daily that were etched with the names of their three fallen comrades as well as the names of two soldiers killed at Fort Hood from another stress combat unit. The group dedicated three of its Afghanistan field clinics to Caraveo, Krueger and Seager and kept pictures of them on a memorial wall in the unit's headquarters in Kandahar.
Hurtig and Kortenkamp said the shootings helped them understand their patients' problems better, but they didn't mention Fort Hood to soldiers seeking help unless they brought it up first.
"It wasn't my turn to be in therapy," Kortenkamp said. "It was for them."
(This version CORRECTS Corrects status of Hasan's criminal case, charges.)