From Fort Hood tragedy, friendship and a mission emerge

Nader Hasan’s cousin Nidal is accused of shooting and killing Kerry Cahill’s father, Michael, after Michael Cahill charged the shooter, clutching only a folding chair over his head, trying desperately, valiantly to stop the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood.

One wouldn’t expect Kerry Cahill and Nader Hasan to be friends, but they are. Sometimes, humanity throws you a curve that way.

Living through the pain of the Fort Hood tragedy from different places, Cahill and Nader Hasan are finding common bonds forged through a common purpose. In 2011, Hasan founded the Nawal Foundation to denounce extremism and violence committed in the name of Islam. Cahill joined the board of directors a year later after striking up a friendship.

“We don’t want violence to get the last word,” Hasan, a 43-year-old trial lawyer in Fairfax, Va., said of the foundation.

He knew that by being related to Nidal Hasan, he had a platform to state the position he felt was missing from the public discussion: “That this is in no way who we are as a community and what we have as values. It’s completely to the contrary.”

Cahill and Hasan will share their unlikely story Tuesday in Austin at a Friends in Faith luncheon fundraiser sponsored by Interfaith Action of Central Texas, a nonprofit that seeks to build relationships among faith communities. In separate phone interviews with the American-Statesman, they spoke emotionally, pensively and hopefully about their evolving friendship, their work with Nawal and the message they hope to impart in Austin.

Maj. Nidal Hasan is charged with killing 13 people and wounding 32 others at Fort Hood, where he was an Army psychiatrist. In emails to a known terrorist, Nidal Hasan, who is Muslim, had expressed his support for suicide bombings and killing civilians, a report on the Fort Hood rampage later found.

Nader and Nidal Hasan grew up together, but Nader declined to comment on what his cousin was like then, worried that anything he said would be misinterpreted as a plea for sympathy.

“I’m disgusted by the acts of my cousin every day,” Nader Hasan said. So are his fellow Muslim Americans, he added.

But in the two years since the mass shooting, Nader Hasan grew dismayed by what he called the “perceived silence or an acceptance” among Muslim Americans, though there were plenty of them, he said, who denounced the mass shootings.

“You never heard anything in response, speaking out to say that the majority of Muslims don’t believe this,” Hasan said.

Nader Hasan figured that extremists get media attention. They have had an impact by inflicting casualties, thereby garnering the media spotlight. They have succeeded in a very small number of cases, he said, by making Muslim Americans choose between God or country.

“They say, ‘Do you believe in God more, or do you believe in America more, because if your country is at war with your religion, shouldn’t you take on that aggressor?’” Nader Hasan said. “This is a false choice.”

Only civilian killed

At a 2011 evidentiary hearing, witnesses testified that Nidal Hasan had exclusively targeted soldiers, training his gun on those lying on the ground or crawling away, until the barrel-chested Michael Cahill, a 62-year-old civilian, rushed him.

That was just like her dad every day, Kerry Cahill said.

“If he saw somebody being treated wrong, something not going right, he got out there, and he was loud, and he was bossy, and he stood up” for what was right, Cahill said. She had spoken in a thoughtful, measured tone during the interview, but her voice brimmed with pride when the conversation turned to her father.

“It’s not what you do in the moment of crisis, it’s what you do every day,” Kerry Cahill said. “If you have to do the best possible thing you do every day, then you get to be like my dad.”

A Cameron resident who worked as a physician’s assistant at Fort Hood, Michael Cahill was the only civilian killed. He was posthumously awarded the Secretary of the Army Award for Valor.

A 30-year-old actress, writer and artist-educator who lives in the New Orleans area, Kerry Cahill met Nader Hasan for the first time in 2011, reaching out to him after watching a TV interviewer ask him if he would meet with the victims’ families.

Hasan paused ever so slightly and told the interviewer, yes, if they so desired.

Kerry Cahill didn’t like at all what she sensed was a stain “on families of people who do things like this,” she said, as if the blame somehow was transferred onto them as well.

“I know (Nidal Hasan’s family members) went through just as much hell” as the victims’ families, Cahill said.

Nawal Foundation

Near the second anniversary of the mass shooting, Cahill, her mother, Joleen, sister Keely Vanacker, brother James Cahill, and Leila Hunt-Willingham, whose brother J.D. Hunt was killed in the Fort Hood mass shooting, met with Nader Hasan, his wife and 1-year-old son, and his mother, Nawal, who lives down the street.

The foundation is named for Nader Hasan’s mother, whose name means gift in Arabic. It is Nader Hasan’s tribute to his single mom who raised five children, which he considers a gift.

“It was emotional. It was surreal,” Nader Hasan said of that meeting between families. “I think we probably both surprised each other as to how comfortable it became after the first few sentences.”

“It was a wonderful day,” Cahill said. “Healing gets easier with days like that.”

The Cahills brought with them something special, “Mouse Soup,” a book their father had read to them when they were children. Nader Hasan now reads the book to his son, now 2. The gift, Nader Hasan said, captured “what great human beings the Cahills are.”

By coming into his home and his mother’s home, seeing where they live and the American flag hanging out front, the Cahills were able to see that what happened at Fort Hood “was completely from left field for us, too,” Nader Hasan said. “Nobody deserves this. Nobody.”

Cahill and Nader Hasan kept in touch via email. When she asked how the foundation was doing, he invited her to sit in on board meetings via teleconference. Cahill had ideas about what the foundation could do. Nader Hasan invited her to join the board.

Cahill’s coming on board has opened doors for the Nawal Foundation.

“Here you have somebody whose father was killed by my cousin, and she’s able to show a respect and understanding and awareness to listen before any judgment is passed on anyone else beside my cousin,” Nader Hasan said.

When they learn that she is working with the cousin of the accused Fort Hood shooter, Cahill says, some people seem taken aback. She’s surprised because the collaboration has been only positive, and she reasons that, in the face of tragedy, it is best to look for what one can do, rather than do nothing. Her father lived his life like that, she said.

“I tell them what we’re doing and that extremism is a problem, and we can speak out in a way that’s very personal to people,” Cahill said.

She hopes their Austin audience will leave feeling empowered to do something about preventing violence.

“I don’t expect everybody to hold hands,” Cahill said, but “we’ve got to amplify the voice of (Muslim Americans speaking out against violence), because the voice of the violent is getting way too loud.”

To those who think she and Nader Hasan are an unlikely pair, she says they have more in common than people think.

“We both have the same enemy, and that is extremism,” Cahill said.

“Good can trump evil if we give it a chance,” Nader Hasan said.

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