The Cahill family ((Dart Society Reports/Courtesy of the Cahill family))

After the massacre

Nader Hasan’s cousin killed Kerry Cahill’s father at Fort Hood in 2009. Then the unlikely pair worked together


Lee Hancock
July 1, 2012 8:01PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on Dart Society Reports.

Nader Hasan was wrapping up a rare afternoon on the golf course, his thoughts far from his suburban DC law office, when his mother called. She’d just gotten a call about a shooting at Fort Hood; the wounded included his first cousin Nidal, a U.S. Army major. Nidal had only been in Texas for four months, and he was a psychiatrist, for God’s sake, the last person anyone in the family would expect to end up in the crosshairs of some nut with a grudge and a gun.

Dart Society ReportsRushing into the clubhouse, Nader asked someone to turn on the news.  Nidal? Nader’s thoughts looped.  Nidal was the passive and obedient one. He didn’t fight, never raised his voice, never broke a speed limit. Why the hell would someone shoot Nidal?

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***

Kerry Cahill got the first call from her mother in Texas: There had been a shooting at the sprawling Army post where her father, Michael Cahill, worked as a civilian physician’s assistant. Her mother knew only what she’d gleaned from the TV news bulletins: The shooting had broken out at the Soldier Readiness Center; there were multiple casualties; the entire post was locked down. So far, Cahill hadn’t called, and his cell phone rang to voice mail. Kerry suddenly wished she were closer, not living here, in Chicago.

“Doc” Cahill had been working at the readiness center in Fort Hood for seven years. A retired Army veteran, he was known for his determination to get any medical support that soldiers might need. His iconoclastic streak had bought him trouble and transfers in more than 20 years in the Army National Guard. Kerry used to crack that she and her older brother and sister could thank their father’s tendency to speak his mind for their childhood as Army brats.

Kerry tried to drown out the TV speculation with her own what-ifs. Maybe her father had gone out for a cigarette break before the shooting started.  Maybe he was locked down inside the post and helping in the aftermath. Maybe he was undergoing treatment for injuries and couldn’t call them. That had happened before. He’d had a heart attack a few weeks back and called Kerry from an ambulance, leaving a voicemail to say she shouldn’t worry if he didn’t pick up cell phone for a while.

Minutes dragged.  The TV droned.  Each scenario seemed less and less likely. Kerry wanted to scream at the television: Why don’t you just say you don’t know much yet and tell us something that we can do for people down there – not just have us sit here, getting more scared and angry.

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***

On the drive to his mother’s home, Nader flipped radio channels, desperate for an update. He could visualize how grueling it is to recover from gunshots; one of his best friends was a Marine major shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq in 2006. Nader had been a regular visitor during his friend’s treatment at nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Nader’s phone buzzed again as he neared his mother’s house. Another cousin blurted that a TV news bulletin had just called Nidal the Fort Hood shooter.  At about the same time, Nader heard a radio announcer say the shooter had just been identified.  The announcer got Nidal’s name wrong.

Through his windshield, Nader saw a network news crew at his mother’s curb. A blonde producer waved Nader down as he crossed the yard. He felt like he was having an out-of-body experience. No, he told her, he couldn’t say anything, and yes, if he changed his mind, he would come find her first.

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Nader’s brain stuttered and stuck in the same groove of disbelief: They’ve got to be wrong -- they’ve just got to be. There’s got to be some kind of a mistake. As he stepped into the living room, he heard his mother weeping, the TV blaring, the phone jangling. He would always remember this moment as one of terrible clarity: our lives will never be the same.

***

The way survivors would later tell it, it was just after lunch when Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan walked into the Fort Hood Soldier Readiness Center, a brown-brick building in the middle of the sprawling Central Texas base. Nidal sat in a waiting area near the entrance.  He bowed his head a moment and then stood and screamed “Allahu Akbar!” – the Arabic-language Muslim exhortation “God is Great.” Simultaneously, he reached into his waistband and pulled out a semi-automatic pistol rigged with laser sights. He shot over and over into the waiting area, squeezing off rounds and reloading so fast that the bap-bap-bap of bullets sounded to some people like machine-gun fire.

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Some soldiers fell, and others crawled for cover. A 62-year-old civilian physician’s assistant named Michael Cahill charged from a cubicle toward the shooter with a chair raised like a weapon. The major calmly turned and fired, hitting Cahill six times.  

At a pretrial military proceeding known as an Article 32 hearing, witnesses testified that the Army major stalked soldiers inside and outside the building with the bland expression of a man strolling around a mall. Except for Cahill, the major passed over anyone who was not in uniform. The carnage ended when a police officer engaged Nidal Hasan in a gun battle and shot him, leaving him paralyzed below the chest.

Later, officers found 214 spent shell casings from Hasan’s Belgian-made FN 5.7, a $1,000 gun so accurate and easy to shoot that it was known in American gun-control circles as a pocket assault rifle and among Mexican narcotraficantes as ‘mata policia’ -- the cop killer. Inside the major’s pockets were more magazines with 177 more bullets. Michael Cahill and a dozen soldiers died; 32 more were wounded.

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The Fort Hood bloodbath was the worst terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11. On that day, what might come next for Kerry and her family, and Nader and his, seemed predictable. The immediate aftermath of mass murders – particularly those that hold national media attention for any length of time – follows a familiar arc: families of the dead are assigned roles as grieving victims, and relatives of the perpetrator become pariahs who seldom do more than grimace and flinch before cameras.

Both Kerry and Nader struggled with the same question:  What could they do to break through all the predictable responses to such an act of horror?

***

For Nader’s family, the initial problem was getting past their own stunned shame.  How could Nader or anyone else in his proud family begin to explain Nidal, his pudgy cousin who could barely speak Arabic and couldn’t say the prayers at his own parents’ funerals? He’d never been near Syria, never went to a gun range for fun, didn’t like to shoot at anything.

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Nidal and Nader were both oldest sons in an immigrant clan in suburban DC.  Their mothers were sisters, and they were close as brothers until Nidal moved in high school. The Hasan cousins were taught from birth that they should be proud to be Americans. Hasans were expected to become success stories. Their people were strivers - not complainers and certainly not religious fanatics. They faced no false choice about Islam versus America; this was a place where even cab drivers could afford a nice house and college for their kids.

 Nader played football and wrestled and hung out with jocks. Nidal was a stay-at-home son, more so after his parents moved the family to Roanoke, where they’d bought a diner and convenience stores. From then on, Nidal worked as a clerk for his family businesses when he wasn’t in school. He joined the Army to pay tuition for his degree in biochemistry at Virginia Tech. Good grades got him into the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.  Throughout college and the start of his military career, Nidal lived with his parents whenever he was close enough to be in commuting range.

None of the Hasans had been regular mosque-goers; they’d all been too busy building American lives to do much but fast at Ramadan. As Nidal’s mother died of cancer in the spring of 2001, she begged her son to get to know God. So Nidal began regularly attending mosque.

Then terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center that September 11, killing 2,753 people. From what Nader could tell, his cousin was just as horrified by the 9/11 attacks as everyone else he knew. Nidal had said the hijackers were burning in hell. As time went on, Nidal also spoke to relatives about being harassed by other soldiers for being Muslim. Nader recalled the family consensus was that he had to tough it out. Their reaction was similar when Nidal began saying in 2006 that he couldn’t bear fighting Muslims.

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***

So on that awful November night, a photo of Nidal, smiling in his Army uniform, suddenly appeared on their TV screen. The announcer was saying that the Pentagon had just confirmed that the Fort Hood shooter was dead. Fox News called his house. If Nidal was dead, Nader reasoned, his family would need to express their remorse to the victims’ families. He took the phone, not knowing that his cousin was still alive.

In the live interview that followed, Nader told Fox anchor Shepard Smith that his cousin had feared going to war and endured harassment for his faith and once hired a lawyer to see if he could get a discharge. Smith asked if his cousin was violent. “Him?” Nader blurted his voice incredulous. “No. Absolutely not.”

Nader’s mother picked up a call and began talking to a reporter from the Washington Post.  Nader felt like he had made a mistake in talking to Fox, and he didn’t want his mother to compound their troubles. All those things she was saying about Nidal being slow to make friends and the Army being his life and his asking to get out of the military because he was tired of being harassed for his background – suddenly, it seemed to Nader that anything any of them said would make the entire family sound suspect. Nader kept mouthing for his mother to hang up. He heard his mother tell the reporter that Nidal was like her son.

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***

Just after 11:15 p.m., Kerry got a call from her older sister, Keely Vanacker. An Army sergeant and a chaplain had visited their parents’ home in Cameron, Texas.  They’d delivered bad news, Kaylee told Kerry. Clutching the phone, Kerry beat her fist on her friend’s kitchen table and wailed: No-no-no-no! Not this way. Not like this.

The day after the shootings, Kerry thought she might look insane as she walked through Chicago-Midway airport. She flinched and averted her eyes every time she saw a newspaper stand. Everywhere, headlines screamed MASSACRE. The word was always illustrated with images of stunned Fort Hood soldiers and their families.

Once she reached her mother’s home in Cameron, about 50 miles east of Fort Hood, she was grateful to find a family friend stationed at the front door, waving off reporters. Yet Kerry’s mom wanted to talk about her husband, so the family granted a few interviews.  One network TV producer ended up talking nearly as much about her own emotional exhaustion as listening about the family’s ordeal. Kerry appreciated knowing that journalists were emotionally affected, too. “She became a person to us. We could see -- they get worried, they get stressed out, it’s hard for them, too,” Kerry told me later. “It was nice for me to realize that you don’t always want to go and cover the disaster.”

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Other media were harder to take. A few days after her father’s funeral, Kerry hit her limit going into a drug store to buy Ensure for her mother, who wasn’t eating because of her grief. Walking past a magazine rack, Kerry was enraged to see her dad’s killer staring from the cover of Time.

So she started calling news editors when she saw Nidal Hasan’s mug shot to illustrate articles about Fort Hood’s fallen.  Later, she wrote an open letter to the media. “I will tell you that I am not alone in this thought,” she wrote. “I have heard others state how tired they are of seeing his photo everywhere. This seems a simple enough problem to fix.”  But nothing made her angrier than when the major’s photo appeared with print and Internet stories about her father’s medal ceremony. She felt like she was spinning through the same maddening experience over and over, and she called news outlets as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., to demand that they take down the mug shot she so hated.

“That’s forgetting the soldiers and the other people who died and the people who were there,” she said. “Who we choose to remember says a lot about us.”

***

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The week before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Nader was interviewed by Bob Woodruff on ABC News. He denounced Islamic extremism and urged other Muslim Americans to do the same. He talked about the Nawal Foundation, which Nader had founded with a friend to give voice to Muslims who oppose violence.  Then came a question that Nader didn’t expect, one that rattled him.

“Do you have any desire to talk to some of the family members?” Woodruff asked him.

“If they’d want to talk to me,” he replied.

“If you did talk to them, what would you say?”

Nader’s sigh was audible.  “God bless you.  God bless the ones—” he paused – “you lost, who’ve been harmed.  And God bless our country, to get through this.”

That exchange, Nader told me later, “turned out to be one of the best things that happened.”

***

Kerry watched that interview and felt an overwhelming urge to email Nader. Those questions about what Nader would say to the families had seemed a little unfair to her, and she thought the guy looked vulnerable and earnest when he tried to answer. So she wrote that she did not blame his family or Islam. She asked him to consider a private meeting between her family and his. “I am hoping,” she wrote, “that a meeting would be a beginning.”

Just after the second anniversary of the shootings, the Cahills visited Nader’s family.  His mother, Nawal, was initially too mortified to meet them. When she agreed, Joleen Cahill, Kerry’s mother, hugged her.  She spoke of their common experience as mothers and told Nawal it wasn’t her fault. Nawal told them about Nidal’s early days and how he changed after his mother died. The Cahills felt like they finally had some insight into who Nidal Hasan was.

“I can’t imagine how it must be to have to think, ‘What could I have done?’ ” Kerry told me later. “She didn’t deserve this either.”

***

Kerry and Nader continued to talk. Kerry also joined the board of the Nawal Foundation. In March, Kerry and Nader told their story in public for the first time, at an interfaith conference for nearly five hundred high school students. Kids and adults alike were riveted.

As Kerry paced before the crowd, Nader asked the students if anyone knew about Fort Hood. “That was my cousin who did that,” he said. Everyone stared, stunned and silent, at the compact man with thinning hair and sad, gray eyes. “My cousin killed Kerry’s father,” he told them.

Kerry nodded.  Nader continued. “My cousin killed her dad almost two and a half years ago. And now—now we’re working together.”

Kerry showed a photo of her father – a jolly, white-haired man who looked like an off-duty Santa Claus. She spoke about her anger, her sense of helplessness and her realization, after visiting with a counselor and a priest, that she had to choose not to be consumed with anger.  “I’m not going let conflict win,” she said.

Nader told the students that he was afraid of what people thought of him. “Did they think I knew about it? Did they think I supported it?” he said. “Now I have this scarlet letter. I have a terrorist in my family.”

That fear was particularly pronounced, he told the students, when Kerry and other relatives of the Fort Hood fallen asked to meet with Nader’s family. Yet, stepping out of comfort zones and listening to one another changed their lives. “We’re hoping that you can find comfort and strength by seeing what Kerry and I are doing,” Nader added. “That she and I could work together and be friends and travel together and laugh together might seem impossible. And yet we’re doing it.”

They realize they’ve chosen a huge task. They both face the private and public stresses of Nidal’s upcoming court martial. Postponed repeatedly, the death penalty trial is now set for next year at Fort Hood. More than eighty Fort Hood survivors and family members have also filed a $750 million legal action against the Army for ignoring Nidal’s vocal, violent beliefs. (The Cahills opted not to join the lawsuit.)

“We’re not saying we’re experts on religion or on terrorism or the media or anything,” Nader said later. “Kerry and I just both know we have to speak up. Doing nothing is not an option. Whether it’s giving voice to victims, giving voice to true patriotic Muslim Americans, encouraging the media to take a more complex view – who’s going to do it but us?”

Added Kerry, “We’ve found a way to be able to talk and work together and respect one another, even if we don’t always agree. And we realize that, because of who we are, we can get other people into the room. We can be the catalyst.

“You’re not often faced with an opportunity to speak out and be heard where there’s a chance to do something good – particularly after something as awful as this,” she told me. “It’s as simple as this: my dad didn’t want to die. He just didn’t want anyone else to die either, so he had to try to do something. If I have the opportunity to say the thing that might to help prevent this from happening again, I’ve got to take it.”


Lee Hancock

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