When bad things happen in our world, it’s become the norm for people to take to social media to express their outrage/shock/sadness and offer condolences and prayers. But since the shooting at Fort Hood yesterday that killed four (including the shooter) and wounded sixteen others, I’ve seen very little of that outside of from those who are part of the military community. The general public doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about this event, especially in comparison with other mass shootings in recent history. At first, I didn’t understand why. But now I think I get it.
The first time there was a mass shooting at Fort Hood (in 2009), I was not yet married to a Soldier. I knew nothing about the Army, had never been within a hundred miles of a military base, and had never given much thought to the lifestyles of our troops and their families. Not because I didn’t care, but because it wasn’t a world that I’d ever had any sort of exposure to. I thought, like many of you are likely thinking now, “all of those Soldiers who have been to war, are trained to kill, walking around with guns all day- something was bound to happen at some point.” Due to my lack of understanding, it wasn’t entirely shocking to me (at the time) that gun violence would take place in a military setting.
However. That was before I married a Soldier stationed at Fort Hood. Before America’s largest military installation became my second home. Before I knew. So I thought I would share with those of you who might be as uninformed about military life as I once was the truth about Fort Hood.
Whatever you picture a military base too look like is probably completely inaccurate, unless you’ve actually visited one before. First of all, they aren’t small. Fort Hood, for example, spans 339 square miles. That’s roughly one hundred times larger than the small Michigan town I hail from. The population is over 100,000, which is not only twelve times greater than the population where I live, but about the same size as the population of my nearest “big city.” So, Fort Hood isn’t just a military base (whatever you imagine that to be), it’s an entire city.
Sure there are the things you’d expect- lots of indiscriminate military-looking buildings, more people dressed in uniform than you’ve ever seen in your life, and streets with names like Hell on Wheels Avenue and Tank Destroyer Boulevard.
There are road closings for parades and marches, and guarded lots full of military vehicles (most of which I still don’t know the names of.) Every morning at sunrise, bugles play Reveille as the flag is raised. And every day at 5pm, Retreat is played as it is lowered. (During which time the base goes eerily, heartwarmingly silent.) There are Soldiers training, guards on duty, and humvees roaming the streets at all hours.
But there are also families. Lots of them. There are houses, apartment complexes, elementary schools, and playgrounds. There are hospitals, gyms, bowling alleys, churches, movie theaters, hotels, and motels. There are convenience stores (called shopettes) that sell the most delicious do-it-yourself milkshakes. (Seriously, I was obsessed with those things.) There are grocery stores (called commissaries) and department stores (called PXs or Exchanges) that sell everything from military gear to furniture to Barbies and Legos.
There are concerts and festivals and parks and baseball fields. There are museums and gift shops and restaurants and fast food places. There’s even a Chili’s Restaurant near the main entrance now! There is a beautiful area known as BLORA (Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area) that boasts cabin rentals, a campground, a gorgeous beach, pavilions for picnics, a waterpark for children, mountain trails for biking and hiking, and even the frequent wild cow sighting. (Yes, for real, just cows roaming all over the countryside like it’s their job.)
And then there are the things that are a wonderful collision of military and civilian life, things you can only find on a military base. Like Cooper Field, where hundreds (thousands?) of military families go every year to await the return of their deployed Soldiers. Like a Blackhawk airfield across the street from a gas station.
Like beautiful memorials dedicated to our fallen Soldiers, and outdoor museums displaying military vehicles and weapons used throughout history.
So after my husband and I confirmed that all of our close friends stationed at Fort Hood were safe yesterday (which was quite the harrowing task), I began thinking of others- and not just the Soldiers who were injured and killed. I thought about all of the Soldiers recently returned from deployment- thousands of them in the last couple of months alone, many of my husband’s friends included, who were just letting their guards down and starting to feel safe again. Now this. I thought of the little boy in the red t-shirt who was so awestruck by the outdoor museum, he kept getting in trouble for trying to climb on all of the tanks and planes. I thought about the sweet old man at the main gate who was always so sincere when he said, “Welcome to the Great Place.” I thought about the families I saw with their children at the parks, the barracks full of young Soldiers that remind me much of the college community near my hometown, and of all of the faces I’ve seen and paths I’ve crossed at Fort Hood- people who will undoubtedly carry yesterday’s events with them for a very long time.
I thought of the eyesore that is the location where Fort Hood’s most notorious prisoner is housed- the animal who massacred thirteen people and injured thirty one more in a mass shooting on post in 2009. They had to build a monstrosity of a “secure location” to guard him, one so big it is impossible to ignore, no matter how hard you try. I remembered the building right across from my husband’s barracks room before we got married, the one where the massacre took place. (Which has subsequently been torn down.) And I wondered, how could this happen again?
As the media began to suggest that inadequate security was to blame for the gun making it on base, I thought about the security at Fort Hood. The ultimate “gated community,” there are over a dozen different gates at Fort Hood, which serve as its only entry and exit points. Unlike the quaint little iron gate you might be imagining, the gates are more like what you would find at the Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge or Disney World (although with much less touristy fanfare)- massive structures with multiple lanes, often backed up for miles. There are a number of security measures employed at these gates, including armed guards, explosive detecting dogs, and ID checks, just to name a few. Random vehicle inspections are performed routinely, but it would be nearly impossible to search every inch of every single vehicle going on post any given day. There are answers to be sought, definitely, but I don’t know that they’ll be found in the form of security lapses.
When bad things happen in our world, we tend to compartmentalize them. It’s easier to cope with a loss like the one at Fort Hood yesterday if we feel like what happened could never happen to us. So I believe that much of the public is dismissing yesterday’s tragedy as a risk of living in a military community, something they don’t have to worry about, something that’s not their problem. But here’s the truth about Fort Hood: It’s not just a military base. It’s much more like the towns we live in than anyone would like to believe.
All photos were taken by me during trips to Fort Hood (hence the poor quality).