The Silence that Followed

The Silence that Followed

On November 5, Lt. Col . Richard Brunk, an Army Chaplain at Fort Hood, Texas, had plans to meet leaders of one of the facility’s new military units at 2 p.m. to discuss newly arrived soldiers. At 1:30, he received word of a shooting taking place a mile from his office, where many of those new soldiers were processing their paperwork. Brunk and three comrades rushed to the site, arriving minutes later at a scene he compares to “10 episodes of CSI combined.” In the following days, Brunk worked around the clock to comfort those at the scene, counsel victims and families, and plan memorial ceremonies. Here, Brunk tells us about Fort Hood in the aftermath.

Photo: Erin Trieb

The shooting started in one of the Soldier Readiness Processing Center buildings, where soldiers go to get paperwork updated. We call it SRP for short. Two units had arrived just the day before, and there were probably 80 to 100 people in that very small building, where Nidal Hasan allegedly started shooting point-blank.

There was a white tile floor, but you couldn’t tell. It was red from side to side. I saw bloody clothing, torn-up uniform parts, personal items discarded all over the place. People just dropped them when they fell or as they ran from the gunman.

The wounded had been taken out, but dozens of the remaining people at the SRP site were covered in blood from having rendered first aid. Things were incredibly calm. Most people were in shock, but they were still taking care of one another.

Later we visited with those who were in the SRP at the time of the shooting to support and reassure them. I’ve been looking for the magic words to say in situations like these my whole career. I still haven’t found them.

I think the feeling of our soldiers is that the media focus has all been on the shooter and not on the people killed. Many of them were medical professionals–psychologists, nurse practitioners, psychiatric staffers–who were preparing to go to Iraq and Afghanistan to help soldiers. One of the victims had just gotten married and was only at the SRP building to put his wife on his Army insurance. Another of the guys was a retired physician’s assistant from the Army. He worked at the SRP site. He looked like Santa Claus–a big, jolly guy in his early 60s with white hair and a white beard. He’d had a heart attack the week before the shooting, and insisted that he come back to work because he loved what he did. Another soldier was three months pregnant. Reports put the count at 13 dead. We put the count at 14. Twelve soldiers, one civilian staff member, one baby.

At 12:15 a.m., I got a call to go and notify someone of a death. Around three hours later, we knocked on the door, and a young lady with three babies answered. We had to tell her that she was a widow. This lady was barely over four feet tall. Just tiny with these three little kids. She opened the door, we asked if we could come in, and she just kind of stared at us. She said, “Please give me good news.”

The sergeant who was with me was from her husband’s brigade. He was tasked with actually tell her. There’s a short speech they memorize, and he got about a sentence into it when he choked up. Then he started over, and in the second sentence, she totally lost it. We both tried to comfort her. I was really proud of my soldier. He broke down crying in the car when we left, but he did an awesome job, and he was very compassionate.

I was asked the other day if we feel less safe at Fort Hood. No, we don’t. We know that a rare incident of someone who, for whatever reasons, decided to take things out on unarmed innocent people could have happened anywhere. We’re trying to get back to normal, but it’s hard after an event like this. We have reminders everywhere.

We have six soldiers in our unit who are being put in for the Soldier’s Medal because when they heard the gunfire, they ran toward it.

Could we have done this or done that to prevent the shooting? Who knows? We talk a lot about the worst of one person who brought tragedy to us all, but it brought out the best in a lot of people.

Published June 2010