By Ken Olsen
(Copyright 2010/All Rights Reserved)
Angi Cunningham didn’t believe her husband’s friend when he called Nov. 5 to warn that a gunman had opened fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. “He said, ‘There’s been a shooting. Get inside.’ I thought he was joking.”
She had just returned home after picking up her son from a half day of school. After one look at the TV news, Angi and her husband, who happened to be home, gathered the children and retreated to the upstairs master bedroom, hoping they were out of the line of fire. They put mattresses over the window as rumors spread that the shooter was in Comanche 3, the family’s housing development on post. They got a call from the worried parents of a child they were baby-sitting.
Angi’s fear spiked. “I’m getting told they are shooting in the village where I’m living,” she recalls, her voice echoing the disbelief she felt at the time.
They heard there were four shooters. Then the news erroneously reported that the gunman had gone to a theater. “The misinformation was rampant.”
Soldiers from her husband’s unit called continuously, looking for reassurance. “Can you see my wife’s car?” one asked. “I heard the shooting was at the PX, and I know she was going shopping today.”
Cell-phone service was severed, and all they could do was watch the news, wait and worry.
The stress didn’t ease after police critically wounded and apprehended the alleged shooter, Maj. Nidal Hasan. Angi spotted a couple of soldiers as she neared the entrance to her son’s school the next day and panicked: “It really freaks you out to find out it was one of your own.”
She began to worry about any stranger in uniform. She was outraged at the news that Hasan’s supervisors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center were concerned about his behavior but allowed him to move to Fort Hood anyway, and that the DoD had intercepted some of Hasan’s disturbing e-mails but hadn’t taken action.
“That almost made me more upset,” she says. “They should have watched him more closely.”
The family had moved into base housing from a rental in nearby Killeen to be safer during her husband’s deployment. Long after the incident, that irony remains unsettling to the 25-year-old mother. “It still creeps up on me. Anybody anywhere could snap.”
This isn’t what she envisioned when she agreed to follow her husband wherever his military career led. He switched from the National Guard to the Army in January 2007 after construction work in Ohio evaporated. He told Angi they had the choice of living in Kansas or Texas, but he thought, “Texas would be more fun.” She was up for anything. They threw their belongings in the back of their Ford pickup, scrunched together in the front seat and headed south.
“That was probably one of our least thought-out plans,” she says with a laugh.
Angi grew up in a Marine Corps family and remembers sitting on a box eating TV dinners during the course of her father’s frequent transfers. She only vaguely remembers his deployments, beyond his homecoming from Desert Storm on her seventh birthday. She doesn’t recall any of it being difficult, a credit to her mother.
Moving to Killeen was both an adventure and a challenge. Not knowing what to expect and not knowing the seasons, Angi was surprised to learn that winter in central Texas lasts a month and “a quarter-inch of snow is a once-in-a-lifetime blizzard.” She was shocked to see the first power bill once they turned on their air conditioning, and she was discouraged to learn just how far she was from family.
One Christmas while her husband was deployed, Angi made a 14-hour drive to St. Louis with her 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son so they could spend the holidays with her father; they then drove another 10 hours to West Virginia to visit her mother and in-laws. “I came back so stressed out the doctor had to put me on Valium for a week,” Angi says. That was the last big road trip.
When her cousin died in a boating accident the following April, she loaded the car again and prepared to head to West Virginia for the funeral. “I wrestled with myself all night about going,” Angi says. “One of the hardest moments was admitting I couldn’t do the 24-hour drive.” That left her alone with her grief and the guilt of not going to the funeral of one of her closet childhood friends.
Angi also worked hard to plug in with the military community at Fort Hood. She volunteered to make telephone calls to half of the 260 families in her unit’s family-readiness group, and made sure every soldier had a warm welcome home from deployment, even if family couldn’t be there. She helped a mother who was harassed by her deployed son’s bill collectors and wives who had not heard from their husbands. She told reluctant families where to get assistance. “A lot of people are afraid something will happen if the Army finds out they asked for help,” she says.
She leaned on her mother, who had been through it before. “I love my mother – she’s a bucket of knowledge,” Angi says. “She talks me out of my stupid ideas,” such as the temptation to give her husband’s commander what-for after a surprise training trip to the field meant the supper she cooked was for naught.
She prepared her son, daughter and stepson to move again. They transferred to Fort Drum, N.Y., last spring. It was a relief to leave Fort Hood for a smaller base in a landscape that feels more like home to her family, although she can’t entirely escape. A gas-station attendant in upstate New York, who thought Hasan had died, asked if things were back to normal at Fort Hood. “There hasn’t been much of a public update on the situation, which has led a lot of people to almost forget the event ever happened,” Angi says.
“Part of me wants to yell, ‘Hey, what about us?’ But then the other part of me realizes most of the country was not affected by this tragedy.”
Angi wants to move on, too. “I have decided I cannot live in fear of a repeat of what happened on Fort Hood,” she says. “Granted, some days it’s easier to say that than to feel it. But I give every place and person the benefit of the doubt unless shown otherwise.”
Angi Cunningham’s story is part of the special report “Behind the Blue Star” about how military families are faring after nine years of war. The special report, written by Ken Olsen, was featured in the September 2010 issue of The American Legion Magazine).