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As wars wind down, soldiers return with new anxieties

A Fort Hood soldier (at right in foreground)  hugged Specialist Kristen Haley, the fiancee of one of the people killed in the Fort Hood shooting, at a tribute walk for victims in Killeen, Texas, on Friday.

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via Associated Press

A Fort Hood soldier (at right in foreground) hugged Specialist Kristen Haley, the fiancee of one of the people killed in the Fort Hood shooting, at a tribute walk for victims in Killeen, Texas, on Friday.

KILLEEN, Texas — Pastor Randall Wallace of the First Baptist Church has watched thousands of troops head off to war and then come home to Fort Hood, the expansive base that defines this flat patch of Texas tattoo parlors, pawn shops, and vinyl-sided bungalows.

“These are heroes,” he reflected, “and yet they have problems. Sometimes, it’s too much alcohol. Sometimes, it’s too much stress. And then they wind up in the crime section, and we’re burying people,” he said in the wake of Wednesday’s shooting spree by a soldier, the second in five years, that left four dead and 16 injured.

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For a decade, Fort Hood, which rose from cotton and corn farmlands as a training ground for World War II tank destroyers, was like a Grand Central Terminal for waves of troops heading out to Iraq and Afghanistan weekly.

Men and women alike, volunteers all, deployed from this self-contained city where the streets on the base are named Hell on Wheels Avenue and Tank Destroyer Boulevard. Then they came back, many in need of counseling.

To many who live or pass through, this is a primal slice of Americana shaped by patriotism, pride, and a shared sense of mission, a company town where the company is the US military and the heroes are ordinary soldiers. It’s the kind of town where the Taiwan Dragon Chinese restaurant, about a mile from the base, places the photos of soldiers — not celebrities — on its walls.

But now the wars are ending and the stress of combat and multiple deployment is being compounded or replaced by new anxieties. The number of soldiers assigned to the base has fallen from highs of more than 50,000 troops, and could continue to shrink as the Army moves away from wartime footing. And soldiers, so many who had planned to make a career in the military, are looking at an uncertain path.

A local nonprofit that advocates soldiers’ rights says they are coming in regularly to deal with discharges from the military that have left them with few options for work.

‘These are heroes, and yet they have problems. . . . Sometimes it’s too much stress.’

Randall Wallace, Pastor at First Baptist Church 
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The base, which sprawls across 340 square miles, has an annual economic impact of roughly $25 billion and has a footprint as large as the city of Dallas. About 41,000 soldiers are stationed there, and every day, thousands of civilian workers drive through its gates to work, and veterans head in to exercise at the gym or catch up with old buddies.

“When they talk about Daytona, they talk about racing,” said state Representative Jimmie Don Aycock, who represents the area. “When they talk about Detroit, they talk about cars. When they talk about Silicon Valley, they talk about chips. When they talk about Killeen, they talk about soldiers.”

But they have often been troubled soldiers. The shooting last week brought back sickening memories of the November 2009 rampage on the base where a former Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 13 people. Most of the pain, however, plays out in private.

“Suicide, spousal abuse, sexual assault, and mental health problems in general are issues that have come to the forefront in the last decade or so that my army, in my day, did not see with this level of frequency,” said Sam Floca Jr., 72, who is currently the honorary colonel of regiment at Fort Hood, an unofficial honorary title that he uses to provide a link between past generations of soldiers and current ones.

“It is more acceptable to talk about mental health issues today,’’ Floca said. “A soldier is not viewed as an outcast if he or she talks about mental health.”

As the wars dragged on and soldiers returned home after multiple punishing deployments, the pain increasingly has been felt at home, though incidents reported to the authorities have receded in recent years.

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