A U.S. Army general traveled from North Carolina on Wednesday to pin the Purple Heart on the chest of a young Post Falls man still struggling with the effects of the deadliest mass shooting this nation has seen on a military base.
“It’s a long time coming. It’s a step in the right direction,” said George Stratton Jr., father of George Stratton III, who was one of the more than 30 people wounded when former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood in Texas on Nov. 5, 2009.
Thirteen people were killed, including Michael Grant Cahill, a 62-year-old Spokane native. Cahill, a civilian physician assistant who charged Hasan with a chair, was honored in 2011 with the Army Award for Valor, which was presented to his wife.
Hasan is currently on military death row.
Numerous people wounded in the shooting returned last month to Fort Hood to receive the Purple Heart, but Stratton has too many bad memories to be able to return, his father said. “He’s got a lot of demons still. The sad part is he doesn’t think he has problems, but it’s obvious to everyone else.”
The younger Stratton, who is 23, didn’t want to talk much about the award ceremony, other than to say it was “an honor” but that it “won’t change anything.”
Stratton saw two friends die at Fort Hood. One of Hasan’s bullets hit Stratton’s left shoulder, shattering his humerus bone. He had been at Fort Hood to complete medical processing, preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. Months later, his unit departed without him. He was reassigned and went through five months of physical therapy and counseling, but quit the therapy out of concern that he was placing too much of a burden on his unit. In December 2011, Stratton was honorably discharged.
Since then he hasn’t worked much and has “a lot of PTSD-related problems that make it difficult for his life to be normal,” his father said. “I still think the Army has to provide and take care of these guys better than they did.”
Steve Holbert of the Spokane Vet Center, who attended the Purple Heart ceremony Wednesday, said that’s exactly what he intends to do for Stratton. Holbert said he will be the one, every step of the way, navigating the system for Stratton to get him the help he needs.
“I will be the person who walks beside him,” Holbert said, adding that Stratton asked him why he should trust him. “I said, ‘If you give me a shot, I won’t fail you.’ ”
The Purple Heart, given to military personnel wounded in battle, offers increased retirement pay and other benefits, including combat-related special compensation. It likely will improve Stratton’s medical coverage and disability status. He was previously classified as having 20 percent disability, which delivered benefits of $533 per month, his father said.
In the years following the shooting, many of the survivors and their families have battled the government in court, seeking additional financial damages. The lawsuit claims the government should have known of Hasan’s extremist views. The lawsuit lists Stratton, his parents and his siblings as plaintiffs, saying they’ve all suffered as a result of the attack and Stratton’s “debilitating psychological wounds,” PTSD and “violent mood swings.”
The military previously denied the Purple Heart to victims of the shooting, saying the attack was one of workplace violence, not terrorism. However, Congress expanded eligibility for the Purple Heart by inserting language into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.
Stratton’s Purple Heart was pinned to his chest by Brig. Gen. Erik Peterson, commanding general of the Army’s Special Operations Aviation Command, based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“This is the Army’s fulfillment of that recognition,” Peterson said. “It’s closure with respect to the recognition” and represents the Army’s “enduring commitment to soldiers.”
Stratton’s father said the acknowledgement is important to the survivors.
“They earned it,” he said. “They should get it. It’s about time.”
Attending the ceremony Wednesday were Stratton’s grandmother and grandfather, aunt and uncle, father and stepmother. The ceremony left his aunt, Crystal Lecoultre, in tears.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “It’s a good thing. It’s a good thing.”
His grandmother, Wilma Banderob, said she could only hope the medal and increased help from the Veterans Administration would “help him come out of whatever he’s been going through.
“He needs to get some more help. He’s refused so far,” Banderob said. “When you see people with their heads blown off at 18 years old, it makes an impression on you. He was really excited to go into the military. I’m hoping this will wake him up.”
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