Fort Hood: The difference between Nidal Hasan and Aaron Nemelka

The military and Obama are wrong on Fort Hood. Photo: Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY, August 19, 2013 — Nidal Hasan’s murder of Aaron Nemelka shows the irony and inconsistency in the military’s handling of the Hassan case.

Nemelka was one of 13 that Hasan killed, and the youngest. He is buried in a lonely cemetery on the south edge of the Salt Lake Valley, along with a few hundred other military service members.


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On Nemelka’s grave marker is etched “Afghanistan,” referring to the conflict with which his service was associated.

Other veterans’ graves, for instance, say “Korea” or “Vietnam” to indicate where they fought—though the soldier, airmen, sailor, or Marine may have died peacefully at home long after those wars ended.

But Nemelka never made it to his tour of duty. He was a combat engineer, assigned to 510th Engineering Company, 20th Infantry Battalion, 36th Engineering Brigade. The unit arrived at Kandahar Airfield in January 2010, a few months after Maj. Nidal Hasan opened fire on soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. Nemelka was there at the processing center preparing to go overseas.

Hassan committed the mass murder in part to avoid a deployment to Afghanistan. 


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Pvt. 1st Class Nemelka was buried at the Utah Veterans Memorial Park with full military honors. The cemetery is largely unknown to most civilians in the area, but too familiar to those service members and families who attend the funerals of their loved ones there.

It is also familiar to most of the members of the Utah National Guard, who regularly train at adjacent Camp Williams.

A native of Utah, Nemelka had enlisted as an active duty soldier and so was assigned to a unit at Fort Hood. While preparing for the deployment, Nemelka was one of Hasan’s first victims.

Despite the tradition of assuming innocence until a court formally pronounces a judgment of guilt, it is clear that Hasan committed the crimes with which he is charged — he conceded as much in his opening statement at trial.


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The accused seems to be seeking the death penalty, and has asserted that his religion compelled him to kill Americans rather than to deploy with them.

“Evidence will show that Hasan didn’t want to deploy and he possessed a jihad duty to kill as many soldiers as possible,” said military prosecutor Colonel Steve Henricks.

Aside from the grief that comes with having lost soldiers under any circumstances, families of the Fort Hood victims are frustrated that the crime has been blithely categorized as “workplace violence.” Nemelka was killed by an admitted jihadist as he prepared to leave his home and fight where his country asked him to fight.

Ironically, if Nemelka, or one of the other victims had carried out the exact same attack after having served overseas, the government would have, almost undoubtedly, classified the incident as an act of terror.

The Fort Hood shooting came just months after the Department of Homeland Security issued a report that warned of the risks that returning veterans posed to national security.

The administration has never backed down from its April, 2009 assessment that “military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups.”

The contrast is stark. On one hand, a 19-year-old kid out of high school foregoes a church mission to join the Army in a time of war (his family is practicing Mormon). He volunteers for one of the most demanding and dangerous combat jobs and prepares to deploy to a battlefield he probably knows little about in order to fight an enemy his government assures us is worth fighting.

On the other hand, Hasan’s obvious radical proclivities were routinely ignored, and his self-described act of jihad is downplayed as an ordinary criminal matter.  

Even today, the Obama administration refuses to classify the attack as an act of terror, and the military won’t award Nemelka and other victims the Purple Heart, even though a report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs issued in 2011 declared the incident to be “worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001.”

Nemelka’s grave marker doesn’t lie. “Afghanistan” is the reason he was targeted by Hasan; the radicalized Army officer was simply fighting that war on a battlefield of his own making. 

Rising fittingly in the background, just south of the cemetery where Nemelka lies, is the now infamous Utah Data Center, an NSA facility that represents many Americans’ concerns that the government is wrong on much more than the Fort Hood attack.


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Rich Stowell

Rich Stowell has written about politics and travel for the Washington Times Communities since 2011. He is a soldier in the Utah National Guard and a fellow at the Center for Communication and Community at the University of Utah. Rich is the author of "Nine Weeks: A Teacher's Education in Army Basic Training"and continues to blog about military issues at “My Public Affairs.”

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