By Steve Holland and Lisa Maria Garza
FORT HOOD, Texas (Reuters) – As the U.S. flag snapped at half-staff in a stiff breeze, President Barack Obama for the second time in five years attended a solemn memorial service on Wednesday for victims of a tragic shooting at Fort Hood Army base.
Standing before an estimated 3,000 people, including family members of the fallen and soldiers dressed in Army fatigues, Obama spoke at a podium where the combat helmet, rifle, boots and photos of each of the three victims of last week’s attack were on display.
“For you, the families, no words are equal to your loss. We are here on behalf of the American people to honor your loved ones and offer whatever comfort we can,” Obama said. “But know this, we also draw strength from you.”
Obama was accompanied at the service by his wife, Michelle, who has made caring for U.S. troops returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a central theme of her White House tenure.
It was a second appearance for Obama at a Fort Hood memorial service, putting him once again in the role of attempting to console Americans who have endured repeated random, deadly shootings at schools, malls and elsewhere.
Joining him at the ceremony were some of Washington’s political elite. Walking together to the sitting area were the House of Representatives’ Democratic leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi, and Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas.
Obama had spoken at the Fort Hood base after 13 soldiers and civilians were killed on November 5, 2009. Last August a jury of U.S. Army officers convicted Major Nidal Hasan, a psychiatrist, of murder and sentenced him to death.
“Part of what makes this so painful is that we’ve been here before. This tragedy tears at wounds still raw from five years ago,” he said. “We must honor these men with a renewed commitment to keep our troops safe, not just in battle, but on the home front as well.”
A week ago, Army Specialist Ivan Antonio Lopez, 34, was involved in an argument over personal leave at an administration building. Investigators said Lopez fired on soldiers he worked with and others who happened onto his path during a shooting spree that lasted eight minutes.
Three were killed and 16 more wounded before Lopez, who spent four months in Iraq in 2011, fatally turned the pistol on himself. It raised questions about protecting soldiers at home and caring for troops battling mental illness, such as Lopez.
Obama said all risks can never be eliminated but “we can do more to counsel those who have mental health issues” and keep firearms out of the hands of people having these problems.
“We must honor these men by doing more to care for our fellow Americans living with mental illness – civilian and military,” Obama said.
An honor guard fired three ceremonial shots on behalf of each victim. And then a bugler sounded a mournful “Taps.”
SIGNS OF SUPPORT
Five of the wounded remain hospitalized. The three killed were Daniel Ferguson, 39, of Mulberry, Fla.; Carlos Lazaney Rodriguez, 38, of Puerto Rico; and Timothy Owens, 37, of Effingham, Ill. Each had done tours of duty in Iraq.
Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno said there was much to learn from the latest shootings, including the need to identify risk factors for mental illness.
He told the service that the latest violence reopened wounds from five years ago.
“We cannot help but feel the echoes of that most horrible day in the tragedy we now face,” he said.
Before the service, the sounds of car horns honking filled the air at the busy intersection of Fort Hood Street and US Highway 190 as an estimated 100 people stood in a McDonald’s parking lot. They held handmade signs with sayings like “Honk if you support our troops” and “ARMY STRONG.”
Shortly before the service, the president was updated about a stabbing attack that injured 21 people at a Pennsylvania high school. A 16-year-old student was in custody.
Obama is spending two days in Texas. He was attending two Democratic fund-raising events in Houston on Wednesday night and is to speak on Thursday at the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library in Austin to mark the 50th anniversary of passage of the Civil Rights Act.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)