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Another Tragedy For A City All Too Familiar With Extreme Gun Violence

Bob Butler (left) and Bob Gordon work on a memorial Thursday at Central Christian Church in  Killeen, Texas, for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting.
Eric Gay
Bob Butler (left) and Bob Gordon work on a memorial Thursday at Central Christian Church in Killeen, Texas, for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting.

Flags are fluttering at half-staff across Killeen, Texas, after yesterday's shooting at Fort Hood. This is a city that's all too familiar with spasms of extreme gun violence: a shooting rampage at Luby's Cafeteria in 1991 that left 23 dead. The 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, when former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed 13 people.

And now, this mass shooting.

"You learn a lot about a community in how it deals with adversity," Mayor Dan Corbin told me in an interview. He added, soberly, "We've just had more experience than many other communities in dealing with adversity."

A flag flies half-staff in Killeen, Texas.
Melissa Block / NPR
A flag flies half-staff in Killeen, Texas.

The Army post here in Killeen is enormous, sprawling over 340 square miles, a vast complex of dun-colored buildings spread along streets with names like Tank Destroyer Boulevard and Hell on Wheels Avenue. More than 40,000 people work there, and the vast majority live off post. For decades, Fort Hood has been deeply embedded in this community, and the businesses in Killeen are tightly connected to the soldiers.

That means for Mayor Corbin, the casualties are "like losing a member of your family ... a kick in the gut. There are going to be funerals, and we need to pray for comfort for those families who've lost loved ones, the same way we pray for those who are killed in combat."

You'll see soldiers in desert camouflage everywhere you go in Killeen. I found Staff Sgt. Debbie Burton outside a popular breakfast spot. Compared with the massacre in 2009, she says, the lower death toll in this shooting came as a relative relief.

"I'm pretty thankful that's all it was," she told me, acknowledging that's a "crazy" benchmark for awfulness.

1st Lt. Christopher Clark told me his first thought when he heard about the casualties was "Again? Again??" Clark worries a lot about the mental health of his soldiers.

"I lost a soldier to suicide last January," he told me. Struggles with PTSD, he says, are "an invisible war, really. We're fighting within ourselves. In my personal opinion [these soldiers] haven't been taken care of."

The first time I visited Fort Hood was in 2007, as the Iraq War was about to enter its fifth year. Back then, I watched as workers shaped a limestone slab — an addition to the memorial for Fort Hood's Iraq War dead.

It had been originally designed for the names of 81 soldiers. They hadn't anticipated needing space for hundreds more names. Now, this week's shooting adds another dose of tragedy to an Army post that's already seen far more than its share.

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Corrected: April 3, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous Web version of this story incorrectly said that former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and himself in 2009.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.

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