Since a killer’s bullet entered the back of his left shoulder, Pfc. George Stratton III, of Post Falls, has shaken President Barack Obama’s hand and been hugged by the first lady. He’s been showered with concern and attention from people throughout the Inland Northwest.
But that support doesn’t strip away the bad dreams or the memories of seeing friends and colleagues lying in pools of blood, some dying on the grounds of Fort Hood, in Texas.
Nor does it repair the shattered humerus bone in his upper left shoulder, a memento of the Nov. 5 shooting rampage in which Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan has been charged. Stratton returned home Sunday night for a monthlong convalescent leave. He’ll see an orthopedic surgeon Friday.
The shootings killed 13 people and wounded 30, including Stratton, who was completing medical processing in preparation for a January deployment to Afghanistan. Among those killed was Spokane native Michael Grant Cahill, a civilian physician’s assistant.
Stratton was dozing in a chair in the Soldier Readiness Center while waiting for a friend when he awoke to gunfire. A staff sergeant lay on the ground in front of him, shot in the stomach, so Stratton squatted next to him to see if he could help. He looked around; the shooter was behind him.
“He had just finished loading up a fresh magazine,” said Stratton, 18. “Soon as he was done, he looked down at me. I turned away from him as fast as I could.”
Both Stratton and his father, George Stratton Jr., think that quick action saved the young man’s life. When he turned and moved toward the door, the bullet entered his shoulder instead of his chest, his father said.
“He would’ve got it right through the center, right through the heart,” his father said.
Stratton managed to get outside, where he noticed “blood on the concrete walkway, blood on the grass, blood everywhere.” He saw a man lying on the ground outside who he believed was dead. Knowing he couldn’t help him, Stratton kept moving. He got to the base’s Sports Dome, where he said other soldiers were caring for the wounded. They started first aid, applying pressure to the wound and patching him up. They talked to him constantly, keeping him conscious. Finally, he was loaded in an ambulance and taken to a hospital.
Using his cell phone, Stratton called his father in the ambulance. Later, his clothes and belongings were taken into custody as evidence, including his wallet, identification, credit cards, phone, clothing and boots. He said he’ll get them back when the investigation is complete.
Stratton said he favors the death penalty for the shooter because the man didn’t value his own life or the lives of others.
“When I looked at him, I noticed he had a dead look in his face. He was pretty much on a rampage, like he was possessed,” Stratton said. “He was just going around with the same facial expression, just shooting, not caring who he was shooting, shooting everybody.”
Stratton said he was “almost” mentally prepared for his deployment to Afghanistan prior to the shooting. That has changed. The experience has made him want to be closer to home, closer to his family. If he could choose, he said, he’d like to be stationed at Fort Lewis in Tacoma or Fort Carson in Colorado.
“Because I was this close (to dying). I was only 6 feet away when the guy pulled the trigger on me. I thought about everything. I thought about my family. I thought about how this would affect my military career,” he said. “I just thought about my future and all that. It was just time to go home. I knew my family was pretty scared for me.”
Some consolation came the day before Veterans Day, when the president and first lady traveled to Fort Hood to address the grieving community. When the president made the rounds in a room filled with wounded soldiers and their families, Stratton shook his hand and secured an autograph on his brigade coin. It says: “God bless. Barack Obama.”
“After I met President Obama, and he talked to us for five, 10 minutes, I sat down in my chair and I’m like, ‘Whoa, I just met the president.’ Mrs. Obama comes up and she says something to me and I stood up and she just came and wrapped me up and gave me a big ole hug,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”
The soldier said he’s not sure what comes next. If he heals quickly and returns to active duty, he could be deployed this summer. He also could be sent to another battalion, he said. He and his family are waiting to see what the surgeon says about the damage to his shoulder.
His father said the family has been touched by the outpouring of support.
His son “does appreciate all of the concern and all of the gestures from everybody in the whole community – from Spokane to Coeur d’Alene,” he said. “We’ve had people just call and talk to him and say, ‘Thanks for your service.’ He appreciates everything everybody’s done.”