Saturday, November 7, 2009

Details of the Victims Emerge; an Idealistic Group

They were soldiers preparing to go to war, sometimes for the second or third time. They were also sons, daughters, fathers and a mother-to-be.

They were 21-year-old Jason Dean Hunt, who his sister said was proudest behind the wheel of his Bradley Armored Vehicle, from rural Oklahoma; Francheska Velez, 21, who was looking forward to the birth of her first child, from Chicago; and Amy Krueger, 29, a sports and outdoors enthusiast, from tiny Kiel, Wis.

These were three of the 13 people -- a dozen soldiers and a civilian Defense Department police officer -- killed Thursday when an Army major on the Fort Hood base in Texas fired guns into a crowded area where soldiers were being readied for assignments overseas.

The Pentagon Friday afternoon was still contacting families and hadn't released the names of the victims. Dozens more soldiers were wounded when the alleged shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist, opened fire with two handguns, one of them a semi-automatic weapon.

Maj. Hasan was shot four times by a police officer and was in stable condition in a military hospital Friday.

Interviews with relatives and friends of the victims paint a portrait of an idealistic group, energized by military service. Mr. Hunt had signed a six-year extension while in Iraq last year, said his sister, Leila Willingham. "When he got into the military, he realized that was for him," she said. In August, he married while on leave. He planned to make the military his career.

Classmates voted Mr. Hunt "most quiet" member of the 2005 graduating class at Tipton High School in Oklahoma. "He was a good kid, soft-spoken and with a great sense of humor," said Kathy Gray, whose daughter was a classmate of Mr. Hunt's.

Ms. Velez had completed tours in Korea and Iraq, where she drove an oil tanker. She aimed to become a sergeant and to continue in the military, according to her father, Juan Velez. She was two months pregnant and had recently returned to the U.S. The family was preparing to travel to Texas for a visit, he said.

"She was a girl; she was still a girl inside," Mr. Velez said, trembling and choking back tears outside his west Chicago home. Ms. Velez was a homebody; she loved to go to the movies and watched cartoons on her time off, he said.

Ms. Krueger, a former high-school athlete and outdoors enthusiast, was a mental-health worker in Afghanistan, treating soldiers with combat stress. She quit the University of Wisconsin her freshman year and joined the military after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with a high-school friend, Kristin Thayer.

"We knew we had to do something, so we joined the Army. We were in the recruiter's office the next day," said Ms. Thayer, who said she talked to her friend on Wednesday. Ms. Krueger was recently promoted to staff sergeant and was preparing for a 10-month tour in Afghanistan. Earlier, she spent three months counseling soldiers at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

"She was feisty," recalled Dario Telerico, principal of Kiel High School. "She was a very determined kid; she didn't back down from anybody." Ms. Krueger graduated from the school in 1998.

Among the others killed were Aaron Nemelka, 19, who joined the Army in October 2008 after graduating from West Jordan High School in West Jordan, Utah. Mr. Nemelka's sister, Lindsey Nemelka, declined to discuss her brother. "Too hard," she said.

Mr. Nemelka, who was due to be sent overseas early next year, was a member of the 510th Engineer Company, which builds roads and deconstructs explosive devices.

John P. Gaffaney, 56, of San Diego, and Russell Seager, 51, of Racine, Wis., were among five Army reservists killed. Also killed was Michael Grant Cahill, 62, who worked as a contract physician's assistant at the processing center where the massacre occurred.

Source: WSJ Online

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