FORT HOOD, Texas — Same spot. Similar tragedy. Echoed sad words.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Wednesday afternoon paid tribute to the three soldiers killed and 16 injured in a gun rampage last Wednesday.
In front of the podium stood three sets of boots, rifles and Kevlar helmets — a tribute to slain military troops known as the "Fallen Soldier Memorial."
Obama said the nation was drawing strength from relatives of the victims and that the tragedy tears at wounds still raw from a deadly mass shooting on the sprawling Army post five years ago.
"It is love, tested by tragedy, that brings us together again," he told the crowd. "To the parents of these men, as a father I can't even fathom your anguish. We somehow bear what seems unbearable."
The president called the victims "members of a generation that has borne the burden of our security in more than a decade of war."
Declaring that all risks at a military base can never be eliminated, he referred to the solider who carried out the shooting, Army Spc. Ivan Lopez, by saying that more could be done "to help counsel those with mental health issues" and "keep firearms out of the hands of those who are having such deep difficulties."
Military criminal investigators this week said Lopez, 34, fired at least 35 rounds during an eight-minute rampage with a .45-caliber pistol before turning the gun on himself. The shooting followed a verbal altercation over a request for leave by the gunman, who is from Puerto Rico, according to the military. Army Sgt. 1st Class Danny Ferguson, 39, Staff Sgt. Carlos Lazaney-Rodriguez, 38, and Sgt. Timothy Owens, 37, were all killed in the attack.
The ceremony took place on the same lawn where, 5½ years ago, a similar vigil was held for the 13 people killed and more than 30 injured in another on-post attack. In that 2009 incident, Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan fired dozens of rounds inside a crowded medical processing building, killing and wounding fellow soldiers and civilians. Hasan was convicted last year and sentenced to death.The president attended the 2009 ceremony as well.
On Wednesday, Obama's remarks were preceded by an invocation by the III Corps chaplain and remarks by Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, and John McHugh, secretary of the Army. Texas Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, Sen. John Cornyn, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Ted Cruz also attended. About 3,000 people showed up for the ceremony.
In his remarks, Odierno offered a few details of the incident, praising a post chaplain who broke windows to help other soldiers escape the gunfire and describing how Owens approached the gunman in the midst of the shooting to persuade him to stop.
Odierno said losing military personnel in combat abroad is tough but somehow easier than the tragedy that unfolded at Fort Hood last week.
"That these soldiers were lost at the hands of one of our own makes this tragedy heartbreaking and inexplicable," he said.
Having the Obamas attend in person — though under tragic circumstances — helps the community to heal, said Killeen Mayor Dan Corbin. The city has seen its share of tragedy, he said. Besides the two local massacres, Killeen has buried hundreds of soldiers killed in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When the president cares enough to come to our community, it speaks volumes about his concerns and the concerns of the nation," Corbin said. "It sends the right signals to our community."
The ceremony concluded with the soldiers in attendance standing for roll call. A sergeant called out the names of the slain soldiers and got no reply, in accordance with military tradition. A trumpeter then played Taps.
Also in attendance was Killeen resident Caycee Hauck, 22, who knew Owens, a car enthusiast, from car shows around town.
"He's a hero," she said. "We wish he was still here."