By Bridget Johnson
Texas lawmakers return from Veterans Day memorials on a mission for those hurt in the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood: making sure that those who serve our country get due recognition and benefits as victims of a domestic terror attack.
Infamously classified as "workplace violence" by the Obama administration, former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan killed 13 and wounded 32 in what he described as an act of jihad against soldiers going through processing before shipping out to Afghanistan.
But the continued refusal of the administration to acknowledge the attack as an act of terrorism has left the Fort Hood survivors shortchanged on honors and benefits, something that could change in a big bipartisan way with a bit of momentum this month.
The Honoring the Fort Hood Heroes Act was introduced in the upper chamber in September by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and in the House by Reps. John Carter (R-Texas) and Roger Williams (R-Texas). Carter and Williams share Fort Hood in their district boundaries.
The bill specifically states the attack was "not merely workplace violence," notes the attack on Fort Hood "could and should have been prevented," recognizes that Hasan "had become radicalized while serving in the United States Army and was principally motivated to carry out the attack by an ideology of violent Islamist extremism," and adds "Hasan proved himself to be not just a terrorist, but also a traitor and an enemy of the United States."
It stipulates that the Purple Heart should be awarded to service members killed or injured in the attack, and civilians killed or wounded should get the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom. Benefits would be the same for those killed or wounded in a combat zone, and post-traumatic stress disorder treatment would be covered.
In the House this week, Carter and Williams will be looking for a few more supporters to bump their 202 co-sponsors up by 16 members.
"Right now it's a matter of finding who we haven't talked to; everyone we've talked to said, "Yeah, that's great,'" Carter told PJM. "I'd like to get 218, walk into the leadership, and say "OK, let's get this done.'"
If the bill can't get to the floor on a suspension of the rules, Carter has talked to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) about quickly pushing it through committee.
"I haven't heard any opposition on this; if they're doing it, they're doing it behind closed doors," Carter added, giving a hat tip to the Democrats who have jumped on board to support the effort. One is Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), with whom Carter has worked on immigration reform. "He and I don't see eye to eye on 90 percent of things, but we've become friends. He and I respect each other," the congressman said, describing Gutierrez as "crazy liberal" while he's "crazy conservative."
"I haven't talked to [Jim] McDermott and people like that because I know where they'd be and I'd waste my breath," Carter added, referencing the Washington state Democrat.
With an expectation that the bill would pass the House, Senate Minority Whip Cornyn told PJM that he hopes to pass the language with the National Defense Authorization Act that should come to the floor before Thanksgiving.
The senator said he's "not hearing pushback" on the bill, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas).
"I think we're going to have broad support; we just haven't had a vehicle to get this done," Cornyn added.
Cornyn acknowledged that the Fort Hood issue "hasn't been front and center for some time" as Hasan's trial dragged on. In August, Hasan was finally convicted and sentenced to death.
Yet the administration "fuzzy thinking," in the whip's words, that branded the attack "workplace violence" remains.
Both Cornyn and Carter said they understood why the Pentagon refused to change the designation of the attack during Hasan's trial on the chance that it could jeopardize his prosecution. "That was a legitimate concern -- prejudicing his right to a fair trial, potentially prejudicing the jury," Cornyn said. But Hasan proudly admitted his terrorist motives during his trial, leaving the administration without a post-conviction reason to not call the attack terrorism -- other than not wanting a domestic terror attack on its record.
"That's a fight that I'd like to have -- if that's their best argument, then I think we win that argument," Cornyn said. "It's very dangerous the way they think about terrorism as a crime."
Still, supporters aren't hearing much from the Defense Department since Hasan went to death row.
"I'm not a fan of Secretary Hagel, but in fairness to him I haven't really seen a lot of pushback from the Pentagon. They have not been engaged one way or the other," Cornyn said, noting the widespread criticism of the Pentagon's original review of the "workplace violence" incident "that masks the evil nature of the threat and sort of lets us let our guard down."
One of the dangers, he added, is the Pentagon being "too influenced by ideology."
Backers of the Fort Hood Heroes Act do expect pushback on the Purple Hearts, though. "There's gonna be some Purple Heart recipients unhappy about it," Carter said, noting that victims of the 9/11 attack at the Pentagon were eligible for the honor.
In Congress, "I can't imagine anyone wanting to make it an issue in this political climate," Carter continued. "It's just the right thing to do. Especially with some people facing an election, if Reid does his usual blocking game, they're going to suffer for it."
"The American people have an innate sense of fairness," he added, and remember that terrifying day when soldiers were "transitioning out to the war zone and all of sudden there's a guy screaming "Allahu Akbar' and killing."
And when the bill gets to President Obama's desk, Carter said he's feels confident that the commander in chief wouldn't want to get tangled up in a veto of broadly bipartisan legislation helping the Fort Hood victims. "He's got more on his plate than he can say grace over right now," the congressman added.
Cornyn was recently at Fort Hood to announce the legislation and remembers shaking the hand of a man who was seriously wounded in the attack.
"Their sensitivities are still very raw," he said. "They just went through the trial a short time ago. Until we get closure, there are a number of them on pins and needles."
"I would encourage everyone to be involved, making sure these innocent warriors who got shot right there in their hometown, that they get the recognition and benefits," Carter said.