After Fort Hood shooting, real fight began for Twin Falls, Wash. native
The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho
LACEY, Wash. — Laying in a hospital bed, hours removed from watching a madman fire six bullets into his body and kill his friends, one might have thought Shawn Manning wouldn’t have to fight again.
The former Army staff sergeant, Army Reserves member and Twin Falls native had given most of his adult life to the military and had been to Iraq twice.
On Nov. 5, 2009, severely wounded, he rose and ran for the exit as Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s guns blasted, killing 13 and injuring 32 on Fort Hood, near Killeen, Texas, in the worst attack ever on a military installation in the United States.
Manning survived, but the fight of his life was still ahead.
Wrought with survivor’s guilt, he battled nightmares in which he again felt the bullets pushing through his flesh.
He fought to save his new marriage, having promised his wife he’d be safe on his impending third deployment.
He struggled to overcome physical, mental and emotional wounds.
But in the process, he came up against the very organization for which he had been fighting.
The Army decided to discharge Manning as physically unfit for duty. But what was supposed to be a six-month process took two years and prevented the mental health counselor from working elsewhere.
“In my case, I was losing almost $2,000 a month in civilian pay after I was shot,” he said.
Then he, and many others, were denied back pay because the Army classified the shooting as “workplace violence” rather than terrorism, despite Hasan’s extreme religious activities and communications with a known terrorist leader.
Manning lost his appeal of that classification. So he and about 160 other victims and family members sued the government.
Manning’s name is listed first on that suit.
But the fight hasn’t been without reward. Manning, 37, said he is stronger now.
Once shy, he now recognizes his obligation to fight for his fellow survivors’ benefit. He has gone from severe insomnia to again helping traumatized soldiers.
“If I made it through that, there’s not much else I couldn’t make it through,” he said.
‘I Had to Stay Alive for That’
As his lungs filled with blood, Manning watched Hasan shoot his friends. He had seen death before, but this was different.
When would Hasan run out of bullets? Manning needed to move. He saw an injured friend he wanted to sling over his shoulder.
“In a part of my mind, I knew I would get shot in the back, and then both of us would be dead,” he recalled. “I felt bad about that, but I couldn’t do anything.”
He could not let himself die because of what it would do to his mother, Shari Taylor, sister Kym Lott, new bride Autumn and others.
“If anything, I had to stay alive for that.”
After four hours of surgery, his family rushing onto planes to reach him, he was awake and watching his attacker’s face flash across the television.
That is the man who just tried to kill me.
He tried to cough up the blood still in his lungs, but it wouldn’t kick out.
“My ribs were broken, so you start breathing really heavy and it’s like someone hitting you in the chest with a hammer over and over,” he said.
He didn’t sleep for days. The pain was sharp.
When his family arrived, Manning felt relief and guilt.
He was sorry his mother had to see him hospitalized, staples holding together his stomach.
He was sorry to trouble them.
No Longer Fit to Serve
Then came the waiting game.
He’d been bedridden for weeks before they pulled out his chest tube and let him move to a hospital near home in Lacey, Wash. He could move, but it hurt and still does. Time, more than physical therapy, would heal.
Manning lived on pain medication, the couch and television. And the nightmares returned.
He intermittently followed the news in the shooting’s aftermath. The unit ripped apart by the shooting eventually deployed overseas, and it pained Manning to see them leave without him.
He tried to stay active and not resort to self-pity.
He worked to mend his relationship with his wife, Autumn.
“Whether you want it to or not, it kind of comes to dominate your life,” he said. “Especially right after the fact. If that’s all you think about, that’s not very healthy for any relationship.”
Autumn is more cautious now, he said. She worries when he goes out and is very protective. But their marriage is thriving.
“You become more numb to some things after going through something like that, and certain people will be afraid,” he said. “They won’t want to get close to anybody.”
He dedicated himself to his therapy, knowing that if he didn’t work through the experience, he likely never would return to work.
Manning expected to be back at work in six months. But in March 2010, Army officials said he was no longer fit for service. He waited for his medical evaluation board to officially discharge him. They said it would be six months. It took more than two years.
The Terrorism Label
Manning reluctantly returned to work as a civilian contractor for the Army last November.
His respect for the military had waned during the discharge process and fight for better benefits. He wasn’t sure he could stomach the system again.
The Army and federal government were more interested in politics than healing the wounded, he said.
“It’s pretty simple – do the right thing, live by the values that the Army preaches to the soldiers. To see people not do that, it was a little hard to deal with.”
But Manning knew what trauma-stricken, battle-fatigued soldiers endure. And he knew he could help them.
“The first thing you think when you are going to talk to a civilian is, ‘How’s that person going to understand what I went through? How’s that person going to know what it is like to be deployed overseas, see your friends die?’”
Manning wasn’t sure how he would respond to clients at first.
A counselor who overly identifies with a patient can’t remain objective. Yet his experiences could be a powerful tool to get others to open up.
He was nervous the first time he shared his experiences with one of his patients.
“There’s a certain amount of transference. You can get caught up in the moment, and I could become emotional. That’s probably the biggest worry – I don’t want to tell them I went through this and seem like a mess either.”
After Manning learned he would not receive back pay for his time out of work, he started emailing senators and members of Congress, pushing for change.
He appealed the decision to label Hasan’s attack as workplace violence, and his appeal board agreed: “This is a terrorist attack, and we should classify it as combat-related.”
When the decision moved to Washington, D.C., though, it was reviewed again and overturned.
A terrorism label would classify his and others’ injuries as combat-related and would get them priority placement in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The classification also matters so those wounded and killed can be honored for defending their country rather than categorized as bystanders victimized by workplace violence.
“It discredits the sacrifice they made,” Manning said.
Moreover, in order for the Army to make sure such a massacre doesn’t happen again, it must admit why it happened.
“Honestly, I have almost seen them repeat the mistake after the shooting, so it just kind of validates that,” he said.
Hard to Forgive
When Hasan’s military trial began in early August, Manning was thrust into the spotlight. His family, including Twin Falls residents Taylor and Lott, braced themselves to relive the shooting.
His testimony was chronicled in news reports nationwide, his voice and image on cable news, his thoughts inked in major newspapers.
After testifying, the court imposed a gag order on him for the rest of the proceedings.
A military jury unanimously recommended Hasan be executed after his conviction on 45 counts of premeditated murder and attempted premeditated murder.
The verdict is justified, Manning said. He knows Hasan likely will rot in prison, as the military has not executed a soldier in a half-century. Despite the lengthy appeals process, Hasan will suffer in prison, and that’s justice, too, Manning said.
“I don’t think there could have been any other sentence than death for what he did.”
Manning said he hopes Hasan eventually will see that what he did was wrong. As a counselor, Manning understands that someone who is radicalized underwent a long “rationalization process.”
Giving up those beliefs means he would have to acknowledge his actions. Manning doubts he’ll let go of his dogma.
But, he said, he is optimistic. Officials have delayed looking into re-classifying the shooting until the trial concluded.
For now, he keeps his eye on legislation, works on returning to a normal life and allows time to smooth tough-to-swallow emotions.
He can’t forgive Hasan, but he can focus on healing himself and others. He can continue to fight for a positive outcome for Hasan’s victims.
“I try not to let the anger eat me up,” he said.