As the trial of Maj. Nidal Hasan draws the eyes of the nation, let us direct that attention to those who deserve it: the victims and their families.
The strength and resilience of the Fort Hood community is legendary. No U.S. military installation has deployed more troops into overseas theaters of combat since Sept. 11, 2001, than Fort Hood, and none have endured more combat casualties in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Twelve soldiers and one civilian were killed at Fort Hood on that November day in 2009. Over 30 were injured.
Among the dead were Michael Cahill, a 62-year-old civilian physician assistant, and Capt. John Gaffaney, 56, who were shot down as they charged the shooter. Their bravery and their heroism saved lives.
Also among the dead was Francheska Velez, a 21-year-old private first class who served honorably in Iraq. She was six weeks pregnant.
These men and women came from all walks of life and every corner of the nation, but they were bound together by a love of country and a desire to serve.
As a country, we must ensure that the dead, the wounded, and the families of the victims receive the full honors and benefits bestowed upon soldiers who are wounded or killed in overseas combat zones and their families.
Unfortunately, we have not yet lived up to that commitment. To date, no Purple Hearts or the civilian counterpart, the Medal for the Defense of Freedom, have been awarded to the victims. Many of the benefits associated with serving in overseas combat zones have been similarly withheld. Benefits like hostile fire pay and special compensation for combat-related disabilities. And families of victims are being denied the additional life insurance benefits and associated tax relief that they are due.
This is wrong, and it requires our immediate attention. To that end, I am currently drafting legislation that would make the Fort Hood victims and their families eligible for all the honors and benefits available to their comrades serving in overseas combat zones.
This is not completely without precedent. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Department of Defense awarded the Purple Heart to victims in uniform and the Medal for the Defense of Freedom to their civilian colleagues. The Fort Hood victims deserve equal treatment.
Looking forward, I am optimistic that my legislation will garner broad, bipartisan support and be adopted in the upcoming defense authorization bill. There is nothing remotely political about this issue. It’s about honoring the victims and providing assistance to them and their loved ones.
We are a nation at war, and the location in which our men and women in uniform come under hostile fire should not unduly prejudice them and their families from receiving the full honors, recognition and benefits associated with their courageous service.
As a country, we have a sacred obligation to take care of those among us who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way so that the rest of us can live free and peaceful lives. We must not let them down.