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It was an achingly familiar scene at Fort Hood, Texas yesterday, memorializing the dead. Not the 576 soldiers from the sprawling Texas Army post who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the three who were shot down by their comrade on base last week. President Obama and top military brass were on hand to grieve with the families and insist that solider on soldier killings must and will stop.
Here's NPR's John Burnett.
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JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The First Calvary Division Band played under a cloudless blue sky while an American flag fluttered at half-staff and 3,000 soldiers stood at attention in their camouflage fatigues. It was the most awkward of dignified military rituals to honor slain warriors who did not die in war.
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BURNETT: There were three sets of helmets, boots, rifles and dog tags forming the traditional battlefield crosses to show honor and respect for a fallen comrade. Their names were read in the final roll call.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Staff Sergeant Graham Key(ph).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Here, Sargent.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Sergeant First Class Ferguson. Sargent First Class Daniel Ferguson. Sargent First Class Daniel Michael Ferguson.
BURNETT: When a soldier does not answer, his or her name is removed from the roll.
The president came to recognize military courage not in the triangle of death in Iraq or the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan, but on Motor Pool Road less than a mile from the site where this somber ceremony took place.
Rather than dwell on the shooter, a disturbed 34-year-old Army truck driver named Ivan Lopez, Obama talked about two heroes that day. First, he mentioned Sergeant First Class Daniel Ferguson, a transportation battalion supervisor from Florida whose decorations include a Bronze Star Medal. Then he spoke of Sergeant Timothy Owens, a heavy equipment operator from Illinois who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As we've heard, when the gunman tried to push his way into that room, Danny held the door shut, saving the lives of others while sacrificing his own. And it's said that Timothy, the counselor, even then gave his life walking toward the gunman, trying to calm him down.
BURNETT: Only after the commander-in-chief had honored the dead soldiers did he mention the sorrowful sense of deja vu on this day.
OBAMA: Part of what makes this so painful is that we've been here before. This tragedy tears a wound still raw from five years ago. Once more soldiers who survived foreign war zones were struck down here at home where they're supposed to be safe.
BURNETT: Major Nadal Hassan has been sentenced to death for gunning down 13 people on this same post in 2009 over his belief that U.S. troops were waging war on Muslims.
There's not yet a clear motive for last Wednesday's shooting, after which Lopez put the gun to his head and killed himself. Military investigators say the shooting spree followed a verbal altercation Lopez had with his own unit superiors when he asked for a leave.
Obama said the nation can honor all four fallen soldiers by doing more to help counsel those with mental health issues and to keep firearms out of the hands of troubled warriors.
General Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, also pledged that the military needs to do better to identify the risk factors that lead to violence inside of fighting units.
GENERAL RAY ODIERNO: We do not know why one soldier is strengthened by tough times but another cannot see a way forward.
BURNETT: At the ceremony's emotional conclusion, riflemen fired three volleys representing those killed.
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BURNETT: While the memorial service remembered the dead, there was a ray of encouraging news: Of the 16 wounded by gunfire, four remain hospitalized in stable condition. Twelve soldiers have been released and most of them are back on duty.
John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.