More than 40 Army reservists dedicated to counseling troubled soldiers in war zones deployed to Afghanistan on Friday, a month after a shooting spree at Fort Hood left nearly a fourth of their unit dead or seriously wounded.
The soldiers from the Wisconsin-based 467th Medical Detachment arrived at a Fort Hood chapel before dawn. Minutes later, led by a deploying soldier carrying the unit's flag, they boarded a bus to the airport. Fort Hood spokesman Mark Kalinoski confirmed that their plane took off for Afghanistan.
The members of the Army Reserve combat stress unit had arrived at the sprawling Texas post only a day before the Nov. 5 rampage. Yet the soldiers said they never wavered in their determination to serve.
They spent the last month training together, and several soldiers from across the country volunteered to fill the void left by the three soldiers killed and six others seriously wounded.
Department of Defense officials decided only recently that the unit would deploy as originally scheduled.
"I think they decided that same day (of the shooting) that they were more dedicated than ever in honor of the soldiers that we lost and have stood firm in that commitment," Maj. Laura Suttinger of Fort Atkinson, Wis., said late Thursday. "They were all very dedicated, caring soldiers and they will not be forgotten, and we're carrying on in their honor."
She and another leader in the unit declined to talk about Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist charged in the shooting spree. Hasan, who was supposed to deploy with the unit, remains in a San Antonio military hospital and is paralyzed from wounds he suffered in the rampage.
Army officials have not said whether Hasan knew anyone in the unit or if he was targeting them. The shootings occurred in a building full of several hundred soldiers.
Hasan has been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. Army officials have not said if they will seek the death penalty, but they plan an evaluation in the next 45 days to determine his mental state that day and whether he is competent to stand trial.
To help in the healing process, the 467th made black bracelets etched with the names of its three slain members _ Maj. Libardo Caraveo, Capt. Russell Seager and Sgt. Amy Krueger _ as well as the names of two soldiers killed that day from another stress combat unit. Everyone in the unit will wear them to symbolize that "we are carrying our fallen comrades into combat with us," said 1st Sgt. James McLeod, one of the unit's leaders.
He said he feels that after going through the tragedy, the unit actually is better equipped to help soldiers struggling with what they've seen in combat or worried about their families or finances back home. The unit includes psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses and occupational therapists.
"They have an opportunity to be part of history, to do something that hasn't been done before," McLeod said. "Even though we lost our fallen comrades ... `no one is going to stop us from completing our mission' is really what their goal is."
And with President Obama's announcement that he will send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next fall, "we're needed there more than ever," Suttinger said.