KILLEEN – Moments after receiving a long-awaited Purple Heart, Staff Sgt. Eric Jackson said he was not always certain the award would come, frustrated with the federal government’s insistence that the 2009 attack at Fort Hood was not terrorism.
"There were days that I was wondering if it ever was going to happen," Jackson said.
Dozens of Purple Heart medals were awarded here Friday to victims of the rampage at the military base, capping years of waiting for the United States' oldest military award and the benefits that come with it.
Yet even as they expressed gratitude for the honor, wounded soldiers and the lawmakers who fought for their right to receive the awards cautioned that the survivors' road to recovery is far from over. They still grapple with the haunting memories of that day in November 2009, when former Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire at the base, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more.
Some soldiers are running into hurdles trying to claim combat-related benefits for being the victim of a terrorist attack on American soil. And some remain frustrated with a federal government that for years resisted calling the shooting what it was.
"I try not to be bitter," Jackson said, “but it's kind of hard not to be bitter because you wonder where's the respect, where's the recognition, where is the support, for what you've gone through and what you continue to go through.”
Jackson's remarks followed a somber ceremony at the base in which 42 Purple Hearts and two of its civilian counterpart — the Defense of Freedom Medal — were presented to those killed and wounded in action during Hasan's rampage. Under an overcast sky and as an unusual chill rippled through the base, the recipients quietly collected their plaques at the foot a flagpole two miles from where the shooting began.
In some ways, the ceremony was a culmination of a years-long push to let the victims qualify for the Purple Heart, a struggle stemming from the Army's initial decision to classify the attack as workplace violence, not terrorism. Texas lawmakers helped pave the way for the recipients, authoring legislation signed into law last year that expanded the eligibility requirements for the award.
"It shouldn't have taken five years," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told reporters after the ceremony. "What occurred on that fateful day was not workplace violence. It was radical Islamic terrorism, and it was part of the broader war on radical Islamic terrorism that this nation is facing."
"It's shame that this day even has to occur," Gov. Greg Abbott said at the news conference. "It's a shame that we have military men and women who fight for our freedom overseas against terrorists, only to come home and be the victims of terrorism on their own bases."
During the ceremony, Fort Hood Commander Sean MacFarland said he hoped the awards would bring a "sense of closure" to the victims, who "put their dreams on hold" to serve their country. MacFarland, a lieutenant general, recalled some of the more heartening memories of Nov. 5, 2009: first responders volunteering their time from across the country, soldiers assembling makeshift stretchers out of plastic cables to help evacuate the wounded and local schoolteachers staying late into the night to care for the children of victims.
Retired Gen. Robert Cone, who was the commanding general of Fort Hood at the time of the shooting, said the awards are about "making sure our government has done right by these patriots."
"Today is about victory," Cone told the recipients. "Today is about fully documenting and acknowledging your sacrifice for this great nation."
While they voiced their appreciation for finally receiving the Purple Heart, recipients alluded to lingering problems with claiming the combat-related benefits that are supposed to accompany the award. Generally, they are similar to what a soldier would receive upon returning home from the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example.
Cruz said Army Secretary John McHugh has given the lawmakers "personal assurances" that the problem will be solved, probably in a matter of weeks. Responding to a question about how the victims are still not receiving certain benefits after all these years, Cornyn lamented that solutions that often "make sense in Fort Hood, Texas, don't necessarily make sense in Washington, D.C."
Despite the remaining challenges, those involved in the shooting vowed to keep pushing the government for full recognition of how it changed their lives. Among them: Kimberly Munley, the police officer who has been credited with putting an end to the rampage by taking down Hasan, who was sentenced to death in 2013.
"No matter what," she said, "we're going to keep climbing up these mountains and busting down these doors, and these soldiers are going to get what they rightfully deserve."