Yesterday, a shooter opened fire on America's largest Army base, killing 13 and injuring many more. As of this morning, 27 people were still in the hospital. The alleged shooter, Maj. Hasan Nidal Malik, was at first reported dead. Since then, it's been confirmed that he survived and is in custody.
The media, obviously, has been all over this. But one reporter--and a journalism school buddy of mine--Amanda Kim Stairrett, knows Fort Hood and the impact this incident has had on the Base better than most. Amanda Kim is the military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald. Her office is just down the road from the Fort's main entrance and she's been covering military news for more than four years, since before she graduated college. Fort Hood is her beat and this community is a central part of her life.
I called Amanda Kim this morning to get her perspective on the shooting and its aftermath. In our interview, she talked about the confusion that followed the shooting, the history of violence at Fort Hood, the way media circus impacts soldiers' families, and why she won't do speculative reporting.
I'm glad to hear you're alright after yesterday. What was your personal experience during the incident? Were you on base to cover the graduation ceremony where the shooting began?
Amanda Kim Stairrett: We weren't actually on base when this happened. Our cops reporter was listening to the radio and heard some commotion, which included the term "mass casualty." Usually, when we hear that, it's in reference to training exercises. But there wasn't one planned, so he hopped in the car and drop to Post with a photog. They got there, and got inside the gate, just before it was closed down to the media. We were the only news agency with a reporter and photog on Post. I got there just after the gate was closed. At first, there were only three local media outlets at the main entrance. Less than an hour though and the swarm began. The last news conference was around 9:30 last night, but we reporters stayed there at the gate overnight. I was there, but this has very much been a group effort at our paper. Everything we cover--schools, business--it's all been touched by this.
Do you know whether there was just the one shooter? Early reports were talking about three or four people involved.
AKS: We have confirmed that he did act alone. In the chaos and confusion after shortly after the incident there were three other people apprehended. And it was chaotic. The cell phone towers got stuffed up pretty quick and there wasn't a lot of clear information on what was going on, even on base. Those other three people, we got a little word last night that they were around the scene, or running away from it, and may have drawn attention to themselves somehow. They've all been released now.
I've heard that the alleged shooter was a therapist for other soldiers. Is that true?
AKS: Yes, I confirmed that last night, going through army records, that he was a medical soldier. And we got confirmation that he was a psychiatrist this morning. That would mean he's somebody who went through medical school and then joined the Army. Typically, those people are commissioned as officers because they're doctors. I don't know who specifically he treated, but we know he treated soldiers with mental health issues, talking with them to help them mentally prepare for deployment, and helping them work through issues after they return. It's a rough job. I haven't gotten to talk to other Army therapists yet, though, so I don't know how the mental health community is reacting to this.
What can you tell me about the recent history of violence at Fort Hood. There was a murder/suicide last fall and I've read some reporting on rising suicide rates at the Fort, as well.
AKS: I covered the murder suicide. It's still under question what the motives there were. But maybe one common thread that leaders have talked about is the stress of multiple deployments. Since those things happened, they've done a lot to make programs available for stress reduction and preparing soldiers before things get out of hand.
Is violence on Post even a reasonable thing for me to be asking about? Like, if this were a similarly sized town, would anyone think the rate of violence was high? Or try to connect these incidents to one another? AKS: It's an interesting issue. What officials do emphasize is that they have 50,000 soldiers on Post and 20,000 are currently deployed. It is a community, and it's a representation of society. The trends in violence are similar. In fact, with suicides, what really concerned everyone was that, for years, the Army suicide rate used to be below the suicide rate for the general population. The alarm was set off here because we started closing in on the national average suicide rate, not because we were so far above it.
I know one of the hardest jobs for a beat reporter is having to go talk to families of recently deceased. Have you had to do that yet? How do you deal with that part of the job?
AKS: They haven't released the names of victims in this incident yet. We do know that one was a civilian and the rest were soldiers. And we know they're about 90% done with casualty notification of families. Once they finish that, there will be a short wait and then they'll release names. I have had to talk to spouses who have lost a soldier in combat and it never gets easier. I sometimes feel that the media and the public are a little less cautious of a sensitive situation when it involves a soldier. Like soldiers are community property and it's OK to be a more forward. I've talked to a 27-year-old woman who lost her husband four years ago. They were from a very small town and it was huge news. She talked about things like being in her parents backyard, talking on the phone, and there would be photographers almost stalking her over the fence. Trying to go through that situation while being a mother was very hard on her. We've always had a policy that if a spouse loses a soldier in combat, our door is open for them. We don't hound them and go to their door. We just make it known that if they want to talk about their soldier they can talk to us.
Besides the families, people really want to know more about the alleged shooter himself. What are you seeing in this coverage?
AKS: A lot of the news organizations are very much wanting to push his religion. Him being Muslim and the impact of that on the incident itself. We don't have anything with that confirmed yet, so I've been really hesitant to say that that played a big part in the incident. We did had a reporter who was at the shooter's off-Post apartment and talked to neighbors. They said he was outspoken about being Muslim and had a lot of pride in his faith. But right now, I've stayed away from saying whether that played a hand in the shooting. I don't know if it's a big problem that people are speculating. I think it's first instinct. But I don't know why new organizations are so prominently featuring surveillance footage of him in a convenience store in traditional clothing. They're building this background in case it turns out that his religion did come into this. But we just don't know right now. And we're not willing to go that route with our reporting at this time.
What's your take on the speculation that's running rampant on TV news with this incident, in general? How does that compare to the actual facts that you know?
AKS: It's been interesting. Very early after the incident yesterday, I was pretty amazed to stand by and listen to, mostly, TV reporters go on air and speculate and report on rumors they'd heard. Whereas, our newspaper is right next to Fort Hood. We have a close relationship and it's always been our policy where we find that it's best to wait for correct information rather than to speculate. Because there's a large family population that isn't necessarily on Post, and don't know what's going on. It's a dangerous situation to get those people worried and worked up for reasons that maybe aren't correct. It's been really frustrating to see all the speculation. I've even been avoiding watching the TV coverage too closely, because I don't want the speculation to accidentally influence what I write.
Image taken at Fort Hood last year, during a visit by former Vice President Dick Cheney. Image taken for U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Nicole Kojetin.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.