FORT POLK, La. — Two hundred and fourteen shots rang out Nov. 5, 2009.
Two hundred and fourteen shots.
One hundred and forty-six spent shell casings were found inside Fort Hood’s Soldier Readiness Processing Site and another 68 collected outside.
Two hundred and fourteen shots were fired from a FN Five-seven semi-automatic 9mm pistol purchased in Killeen, Texas.
It only took about 10 minutes to fire those shots.
After it was all over 13 people –– 12 Soldiers and one civilian were dead.
About 30 more were shot or sustained wounds from falls or other events as they attempted to escape the carnage.
The perpetrator was Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist and devout Muslim who was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Family members and some law enforcement said that Hasan had become more devout and radicalized in the months leading up to the shooting.
He went to the processing center and asked to see a fellow officer who had been helping him prepare for deployment.
When the desk attendant left to get the officer, Hasan walked behind the desk and after taking a moment to collect himself, shouted “Allahu Akbar!” and began spraying the room with bullets. After that initial salvo, he targeted people.
Two of the men who attempted to stop Hasan were among the first to die: Army Reserve Capt. John Gaffaney and the only civilian killed in the attack, Michael Cahill, a physician’s assistant.
Both heroes attempted to tackle Hasan; Gaffaney bare-handed and Cahill with a chair. Both died before reaching him.
The horror of that day would only end when Hasan was confronted by a Department of the Army Civilian Policeman, Sgt. Mark Todd. After a short exchange of gunfire, Hasan ran out of bullets.
As he tried to reload, Todd put five bullets into him, effectively ending the attack and paralyzing him. The damage, however, had been done.
The stories from first responders are horrific. They tell of trying to help the wounded and dying but slipping in the blood that covered the floor and stepping over the dead to get to the wounded.
It is almost impossible for those who have not experienced death close up to imagine what that day must have been like.
It’s not hard for Sgt. 1st Class Alan Carroll to imagine.
Carroll, now with Fort Polk’s 317th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division was a private eight months out of Advanced Individual Training.
He was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, preparing for his first deployment.
“Everyone in my family, except for my sister, has been in the military. My mom was in the Navy, my father in the Air Force, my grandpa and uncles were Air Force and Army. We knew 100 percent that was the career path I was going to take,” he said. “I was 17 years old and on the spur of the moment, I joined the National Guard as an infantryman. Soon, I decided I wanted to go active duty so I talked to the active-duty recruiter and he told me, ‘You don’t have to do that infantry thing if you want to work with explosives. I’ve got a job called a combat engineer. They do the same things infantry Soldiers do but they also get to blow stuff up.’”
Carroll agreed and signed the contract. “However, it wasn’t quite as glamorous as he made it out to be,” he said.
As a young Soldier, Carroll admits there was room for improvement. “I was a hard-charger with the attitude that ‘I’m in the Army. You can’t touch me. I can do what I want.’ I was a good Soldier, but an ass.”
Carroll said his leadership was focused on training –– tasks like evacuating casualties, finding cover, setting up fighting positions –– and he couldn’t see the point. “I remember wondering why we were doing this. We weren’t in Afghanistan and didn’t need this training right now,” he said. “I thought it was stupid but one of my leaders told me that I never knew when I might need that training.”
Little did he know how soon his sergeant’s words would prove true.
Carroll explained that he and three battle buddies, Spc. Frederick Greene, Pfc. Michael Pearson and Pfc. Aaron Nemelka, had gotten their smallpox shots and were waiting for deployment clearance when Hasan began shooting.
He described looking around and wondering what was going on. He heard and saw NCOs laughing and thought that it must be a test to see the reaction of these Soldiers to a suddenly dangerous situation.
“Hasan kept firing and one of the bullets hit me in my left shoulder. I put my hand over the wound and looked at Nemelka and said, ‘That really hurt. I wonder what that was?’”
When he pulled his hand away and saw it covered in blood, he hit the ground. Carroll tried to get Nemelka to drop as well, but he was apparently in shock and couldn’t move. Carroll saw the floor filling with blood. He knew that others were wounded in the first salvo by the amount of blood that was spilled.
“There was a major and chief warrant officer behind me talking. Right after Hasan started shooting, when I realized what was going on, I felt my back getting wet,” he said. “I turned around and saw the warrant officer had been shot on the top of his head. He was spraying blood everywhere. That’s when I knew that, yes, this is really happening.”
He grabbed Nemelka by the pants leg and pulled him down. Carroll told him to play dead, that was the only way they were going to get out. But, still in shock, Nemelka stood up and was shot in the throat. Carroll described tracking Hasan’s location by the sound of the gunshots. When Hasan left the immediate area, Carroll saw a chance to get away.
“I stood up, grabbed Nemelka under the arms and started dragging him toward the door. I heard a couple of more shots,” he remembered. “One of them went in my back and exited through my side. I hit the ground and had a hard time catching my breath.”
What Carroll didn’t know at the time was that the bullet had clipped his lung, puncturing it on the way through.
Nemelka was crying out, “Help me, help me.” Carroll tried to reassure and calm him down, telling him not to worry.
Telling him they would get out.
Hasan, running through the facility looking for people trying to escape and shooting them, left Carroll’s immediate area. Carroll again grabbed Nemelka, dragging him toward the door.
He was facing the direction Hasan would come from if he returned and had decided that, if that happened, he would just run and try to escape.
His worst fears were realized when he found himself face-to-face with Hasan.
“We just looked at each other. I laid Nemelka down on the ground and thought to myself, ‘This is it. I’m going to die,’” he said. “Hasan fired a couple more shots and I think the first one went past my ear because I heard something but I’m not sure what it was. The second shot hit me in the leg and I went down.”
Hasan kept shooting so Carroll laid over Nemelka shielding him, telling him to shut up, telling him they would get out. Carroll said Nemelka started gurgling and he knew he had to get him out.
“I grabbed him by the collar this time and began dragging him toward the doors … about ten feet away. I couldn’t stand and was having a hard time breathing.” Hasan made another appearance, still firing everywhere. Bullets were hitting all around. “One of the bullets hit me in the right bicep. I laid on the floor and played dead until I heard Hasan leave the immediate area again,” he explained. “I got up and looked over at Nemelka, but I could see he was dead. There was no way I could try and help anyone else. I had been shot four times, so I walked toward the doors.”
Hasan came back yet again and Carroll broke into what he described as a “weird, awkward hobble.” This time, he made it out.
Covered with his own blood and the blood of the wounded, Carroll slipped in and out of consciousness as he was taken to the medevac.
After four surgeries he was still alive. One of the surgeries repaired his lung and they discovered during another that the bullet in his leg had nicked his femoral artery.
Yes, he was alive, but he would never again be the same Soldier that entered the processing center. “I looked at myself and decided that I needed to change my attitude and way of thinking. I stopped being an arrogant punk and started being a Soldier,” he said. “I started doing everything I was told, the way I was told to do it. I realized there was a legitimate reason leaders were telling me to do these things. They had either been through it, seen it or heard about it and these are the things that saved them when they were in dangerous situations.”
Carroll experienced bad times immediately following the shooting, playing the “what if” game in his head. “I felt I had broken the Soldier’s Creed, ‘I will never leave a fallen comrade.’”
Carroll’s recovery time was short. He was shot Nov. 5 and by Dec. 19th was cleared to deploy, something he wanted to do. He was offered multiple opportunities to sign discharge paperwork and separate from the Army. He turned them all down telling the nurse he wanted to deploy. “The nurse told me, ‘You won’t make deployment.’ I told her to watch me.’”
Carroll’s buddies helped him with physical therapy and getting back in shape to deploy. He did a lot on his own as well.
When he could lay the crutches down and put weight on his leg without wanting to pass out, he began a training regimen that involves walking.
Once he was able to tolerate walking around the block, he added an assault pack to the mix and put increasing amounts of weight in it.
After that, he was able to begin jogging.
He had to pass an Army Physical Fitness test in order to deploy and when that day came, he passed it with a score of 297. He had begun the journey to becoming a dedicated and motivated Soldier.
Fast forward nine years and Carroll is still a combat engineer. He wears the Sapper patch which puts him among the best in his specialty.
He also wears Airborne, Air Assault and Combat Action badges, and was awarded the Purple Heart for the wounds he suffered that day.
With all he has seen and done, he would be justified in bragging about his accomplishments, but he doesn’t.
He says he rarely thinks about that day, but when it gets cold, his body reminds him of what happened. “My body starts hurting a lot. I can feel the path the bullets took every now and again,” he said.
As for telling his story: “I don’t tell it often because I don’t want people to think I’m telling it to make myself look good,” he said. “What I do is take bits and pieces of the story to impress on my troops how important the training is. That it has real-world consequences.”
He admits that this time of year becomes difficult because it dredges up old, painful memories.
Carroll lost track of his battle buddies Pearson and Greene during the chaos that day. He later found out that Greene died charging Hasan in an attempt to stop him. He also learned that Pearson had been shot “about 16 times.” That’s a lot of baggage for a young man to carry but Carroll carries it –– privately –– unless asked.
“It’s a story and it needs to be told. It’s not as significant as (the terrorist attacks of) 9/11, but people still talk about it to this day. People tell war stories all the time and they always get exaggerated,” he said. “I try to keep mine as simple as possible. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It happened. It was a terrible day. I tell it so we can take a moment and think about the guys that were hurt and the guys we lost that day.”
What does the future hold for Sgt. 1st Class Carroll? He wants to fly –– Blackhawk helicopters in particular. And if he achieves what he wants, he will be flying those Blackhawks as a member of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. He believes it is his calling.
Carroll has deferred his dreams for years so he could deploy with battle buddies.
He recently became a single father with custody of a son who loves everything about helicopters.
Carroll deferred reaching for the dream yet again when his son arrived so that he could focus his attentions on being the best dad possible.
He believes that his son’s love of helicopters is a sign that it was time to take the dream off the shelf and go for it. And so he did.
He was notified last week that his warrant officer packet was board ready. It is in the process of being evaluated and Carroll expects to have their decision sometime in early to mid-December.
“I’m nervous. It’s going to be a long month,” he said. “It’s out of my hands, but I’ve done everything in my power to make it happen.”
And if history is any judge, he’ll achieve this, too. “People ask me if I have post-traumatic stress disorder –– if I have nightmares. Honestly I don’t. I’ve come to terms with that day,” he said. “Could I have done some things differently? Sure, but the actions I took that day saved my life and possibly the lives of others.”
That knowledge is what drives him to live for today and train his Soldiers hard so they will have the skills to survive and thrive in this profession of arms.