'There was nowhere to go'
Maj. Steven Richter is almost devoid of emotion as he describes the moment when the red laser sight of the shooter’s semi-automatic pistol settled on him in a Fort Hood parking lot.
An unarmed Richter spotted the beam emanating toward him from the barrel of the gun but kept his eyes on the man at the other end.
“I didn’t have time to look down. But I was lased,” Richter said. “I saw the light directly,”
Already there were dozens of victims. He would be next.
“There was nowhere to go,” Richter said.
But he had put himself in this position. He had accepted the risk. When the shooting broke out inside the medical processing center on Nov. 5, 2009, people fled the scene in panic, trying to find safety somewhere, anywhere.
Richter, who was the chief of operations and deployment medicine, had left that building just five minutes earlier on his daily rounds of the processing center as well as his office next door and another adjacent medical facility.
He was outside the cluster of buildings when the gunfire rang out and grew louder as the cacophony intensified with screaming victims.
Richter made his way through a mass of people running out of the processing center and moved closer to the building.
He helped a young private who had been shot in the shoulder take shelter in a nearby dental office and did the same with a wounded civilian woman who worked for him.
“It wasn’t the smartest damn thing for me to do without being armed. But it was like I was defending an attack on my home,” Richter said. “Those buildings you see on the TV (news coverage of the incident), those were my buildings. Those people worked for me. That was my family.”
After helping the two victims, Richter took cover behind a parked vehicle. The hordes of people who managed to escape were out of sight by then.
“It was like a ghost town,” he said.
Suddenly an injured soldier stumbled from the doors of the processing center. The attacker quickly followed and fired several rounds at the wounded soldier who had fallen to the ground.
That’s when Richter stepped out from behind the vehicle — “to lure [the shooter] out into the open for those who were carrying guns,” he said.
Richter locked eyes with the gunman who then trained the red laser of his 5.7mm handgun on Richter just before civilian police officer Kimberly Munley fired several shots at the shooter, but to no avail.
The distraction gave Richter a chance to regain cover behind a car.
The gunman then fired on Munley before Richter once more stepped out into the open to divert further fire on the downed officer.
He again found himself in the crazed man’s cross-hairs before another civilian police officer, Mark Todd, delivered several debilitating shots that stopped the shooter in his tracks, according to eyewitness police reports and military court testimony.
Thirteen people were dead, including a physician’s assistant who worked for Richter. Dozens of others had also been shot.
Fearing there might be more armed attackers because of the high volume of gunfire, Richter rushed to retrieve the shooter’s gun. He cleared the chamber three times, scorching his fingers on the weapon still searing hot from the repeated fire.
He quickly laid it on the ground as people reappeared on the scene. He didn’t want to be mistaken for the shooter.
Richter then ripped off the shooter’s shirt and plugged the gaping bullet wound in the man’s chest with his finger.
That’s when he realized the attacker was a U.S. soldier.
“He’s one of us!” Richter called out, according to his testimony in a pre-trial hearing for Maj. Nidal Hasan in October.
Now paralyzed, Hasan is accused of carrying out the Fort Hood attack after he became convinced that the U.S. military was at war with Islam. Hasan is currently awaiting court-martial in Texas.
Hasan had been an Army psychologist in the processing center Richter oversaw, though the two men had never met, Richter said.
Richter, now the medical logistics chief for 8th Army headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, testified through a video-conference link and expects to be called again as a witness during the impending trial. Richter, a veteran of the first Gulf war and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the incident was surreal — a description echoed by many of the witnesses to the massacre.
“I kept thinking it was an exercise,” said Richter, 41, a husband and father of two small children. “That something like this could happen on a U.S. military installation was unfathomable.
“You expect this kind of thing in Iraq and Afghanistan. You never think something like this could happen in America.”
After Hasan went down and Richter realized there was only one shooter, he began helping the wounded and establishing a makeshift triage until victims could be rushed to the hospital.
Richter helped re-establish the deployment processing site at Fort Hood’s gymnasium a few days after the shooting.
The area remained soaked in blood and covered in police tape for weeks after the shooting, he said, and his staff was visibly shaken for months. Richter, though, said he was unfazed by the horrors that played out before him.
“There was no time to stop and feel sorry for myself,” said Richter, who spent much of his childhood on a farm in rural South Dakota. “Things had to get done.”
On Nov. 5, 2010, Richter returned to Fort Hood to receive the Soldier’s Medal, the highest Army commendation for valor in a noncombat situation.
Six other soldiers and one civilian also received Army commendations for their bravery during the Fort Hood shooting.
Like most soldiers, Richter shrugs off the commendation with a “just-doing-my-job” attitude.
“I was raised to dust myself off and get on with things. ... My wife calls me a harsh guy,” Richter said with a chuckle. “I think the way I am helps me deal with these kinds of circumstances.”