Printed on: September 18, 2013

Shooting cost Idahoan his Army career, but not his spirit

By BRIAN SMITH
Twin Falls Times-News

LACEY, Wash. -- Hours removed from watching a madman fire six bullets into his body and kill his friends, Shawn Manning didn't know where his life was going.

The former Army staff sergeant, Army Reserves member and Twin Falls native had given most of his adult life to the military and had been to Iraq twice.

On Nov. 5, 2009, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan's guns blasted, killing 13 and injuring 32 at Fort Hood, near Killeen, Texas, in the worst attack ever on a military installation within the United States.

Manning survived, but the fight of his life was still ahead.

Wrought with survivor's guilt, he battled nightmares of bullets pushing through his flesh. He fought to save his new marriage. He struggled to overcome physical, mental and emotional wounds.

But in the process, he came up against the very organization for which he had been fighting. The Army discharged Manning as physically unfit for duty. What was supposed to be a six-month process took two years, however, and prevented the mental health counselor from working elsewhere. Then he, and many others, were denied back pay because the Army classified the shooting as "workplace violence" and not terrorism, despite Hasan's extreme religious activities and communications with a known terrorist leader.

Manning appealed the decision and lost. So he and about 160 other victims and family members sued the government. Manning's name is listed first on the lawsuit.

But the fight hasn't been without reward.

Manning, 37, said the battle left him stronger. Once shy, he recognizes his obligation to fight for his fellow survivors' benefits.

"If I made it through that, there's not much else I couldn't make it through," he said.

NOT FIT TO SERVE

After the shooting, a waiting game started.

He'd been bedridden for weeks before they pulled out his chest tube and let him move to a hospital near home in Lacey, Wash. He could move, but it hurt and still does. Manning lived on pain medication, the couch and television. And the nightmares returned.

He intermittently followed the news in the shooting's aftermath. Eventually, the unit ripped apart by Hasan deployed overseas. It pained Manning to see them leave without him.

He tried to stay active and not resort to self-pity. He worked to mend his relationship with his wife, Autumn.

"Whether you want it to or not, it kind of comes to dominate your life," he said. "Especially right after the fact. If that's all you think about, that's not very healthy for any relationship."

Autumn is more cautious today, he said. She worries when he goes out and is very protective. But their marriage is thriving.

He dedicated himself to his therapy, knowing that if he didn't work through the experience, he likely never would return to work. Manning expected to be back at work in six months.

But in March 2010, Army officials said he no longer was fit for service. He waited for his medical evaluation board to officially discharge him. It said it would be six months. It took more than two years.

THE TERRORISM LABEL

Manning reluctantly returned to work in November as a civilian contractor for the Army.

His respect for the military had waned during the discharge process and fight for better benefits. He wasn't sure he could stomach the system again.

The Army and federal government were more interested in politics than healing the wounded, he said.

"It's pretty simple -- do the right thing, live by the values that the Army preaches to the soldiers," he said. "To see people not do that, it was a little hard to deal with."

But Manning knew what trauma-stricken, battle-fatigued soldiers endure. And he knew he could help them.

"The first thing you think when you are going to talk to a civilian is, 'How's that person going to understand what I went through? How's that person going to know what it is like to be deployed overseas, see your friends die?' "

Manning wasn't sure how he would respond to clients at first. A counselor who overly identifies with a patient can't remain objective. Yet, his experiences could be a powerful tool to get others to open up.

"There's a certain amount of transference. You can get caught up in the moment, and I could become emotional. That's probably the biggest worry -- I don't want to tell them I went through this and seem like a mess, either."

After Manning learned he would not receive back pay for his time out of work, he started emailing senators and members of Congress, pushing for change.

He appealed the decision to label Hasan's attack as workplace violence, and his appeal board agreed: "This is a terrorist attack, and we should classify it as combat-related."

When the decision moved to Washington, D.C., though, it was reviewed again and overturned. A terrorism label would classify his and others' injuries as combat-related and would get them priority placement in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The classification also matters so those wounded and killed can be honored for defending their country rather than categorized as bystanders victimized by workplace violence. Moreover, in order for the Army to make sure such a massacre doesn't happen again, it must admit why it happened.

HARD TO FORGIVE

When Hasan's military trial began in early August, Manning was thrust into the spotlight. His family, including Twin Falls residents Taylor and Lott, braced themselves to relive the shooting.

His testimony was chronicled in news reports nationwide. After testifying, the court imposed a gag order on him for the rest of the proceedings.

A military jury unanimously recommended Hasan be executed after his conviction on 45 counts of premeditated murder and attempted premeditated murder.

The verdict is justified, Manning said. He knows Hasan likely will rot in prison, as the military has not executed a soldier in a half-century. Despite the lengthy appeals process, Hasan will suffer in prison, and that's justice, too, Manning said.

Manning said he hopes Hasan one day will see that what he did was wrong. As a counselor, Manning understands that someone who is radicalized underwent a long "rationalization process."

Giving up those beliefs means he would have to acknowledge his actions. Manning doubts Hasan will let go of his dogma.

But Manning is optimistic. Officials delayed looking into reclassifying the shooting until the trial concluded. For now, Manning keeps his eye on legislation, works on returning to a normal life and allows time to smooth tough-to-swallow emotions.

He can't forgive Hasan, but he can focus on healing himself and others. He can continue to fight for a positive outcome for Hasan's victims.

"I try not to let the anger eat me up," he said.