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For one Ft. Hood victim and his wife, the wait is nearly over

FT. HOOD, Texas -- Waiting with her husband as he prepared to testify against Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, Autumn Manning began to feel sick.

“We were both pretty anxious,” she said.  “I don’t know how many times I got sick before we even got to the courthouse.”

Family members of the 13 killed and more than 30 wounded in the shooting have been a constant presence at the Army courthouse, filling a middle row, accompanied by military victim advocates.

Many know one another. Some arrive in groups or pairs, sitting together and taking notes as they scrutinize the judge, the jury of 13 officers and Hasan, who is representing himself and has the option of cross-examining victims. Some, like Manning, arrive with relatives slated to testify and wait in anxious silence for their turn on the stand. The judge routinely warns them and the rest of the spectators to step out if they can’t handle the testimony, which may be both tedious and graphic. They rarely do.

Manning, 37, a hairstylist, had watched her husband prepare to testify at home in Lacey, Wash., about 55 miles south of Seattle.

Retired Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning, 37, now an Army mental health counselor, tried to follow his own advice to troubled soldiers and visualize his challenge — what it would be like to take the stand. It was the unexpected that worried him.

The shooting changed and continues to shape his life. Manning had been preparing for his third deployment when he was shot six times, one bullet narrowly missing his heart. He still has bullets lodged in his thigh and back. He has joined other victims in suing the government to classify the attack as terrorism so they will be compensated accordingly.

Last year, Manning appeared in a video trying to draw attention to the issue, which the couple often speak out about in interviews and online.

But they had not returned to the base until this month.

They flew back the second week in August.  A military escort met them at the airport and took them to a hotel on the base where they would stay with other victims and their families. Autumn Manning didn’t feel safe, no matter how many guards were posted at the gate as they passed, but the couple didn’t have a choice.

When Manning’s testimony was delayed, they shared meals and outings with other families, an eclectic group of men and women of various ages and races who became friends and sounding boards over the years as the court-martial dragged on.

“We found it really healing to be with the other victims who were there,” she said. “You feel that closeness that you’ve been through something nobody else can relate to.”

Autumn Manning was worried about Hasan.

“My big thing was is he going to cross-examine my husband, how is he going to react to that?” she said.

Finally, the call came.

It was a Friday morning, Aug. 9. Manning wore a dark suit. Soldiers again escorted them in, past sharpshooters and rows of barriers into the heavily fortified courthouse.

They were placed in a holding room to wait as other witnesses testified, and sat in silence.  

“It was so tense in there, just the two of us. I didn’t say anything because I knew he was doing his own thing,” Manning said.

Finally, shortly before noon, the soldiers arrived again, and the Mannings walked toward the windowless courtroom.

They walked in together. She took a seat near the end of the second row in the gallery with other victims’ families as Shawn walked toward the stand.

To get there, he had to pass Hasan.

He did so without faltering.

As her husband took the stand, Autumn Manning watched him take a long, hard look at the man who shot him.

She watched Hasan, too — who looked much older than she remembered from pretrial hearings, “nonchalant,” she said. That made her angry.

“How dare you look at my husband?” she thought. “He has no remorse for what he did.”

The atmosphere in the room felt close, she said, a “really small room for so many people.”

She watched the jury, all officers of Hasan’s rank or higher. She found them intimidating in their dress uniforms. If felt as if they were looking down at her from a great height.

Military prosecutors questioned Shawn Manning about the events that day four years ago. He had been sitting at a station in the soldier readiness processing center awaiting treatment, he said, sitting in the front row of chairs, texting his wife. Then he heard someone in front of him shout, “Allahu akbar!” -- Arabic for “God is great.”

“That’s when I saw Hasan start shooting,” Manning said.

Autumn Manning watched her husband maintain his composure as he relived the shooting. He was edgy as prosecutors prepared to ask him to identify Hasan, pointing before they even asked.

“He’s there,” Shawn Manning said, twice, staring Hasan down.

Manning described how he was wounded, fell and played dead as his lungs filled with blood.

“I figured the shooter would finish me off,” he said, and his wife could hear him faltering.

She didn’t realize that the something unexpected her husband had feared had just happened.

He had been staring in her direction as he testified when he recognized a familiar face: the wife of one of those killed, Capt. John Gaffaney, 56, of San Diego.

Manning saw her just as he reached the point in his testimony where he had to describe seeing Gaffaney that day.

He was caught off guard and started to choke up. He described seeing Gaffaney’s body on the ground as he fled the medical building. They were supposed to deploy together, he said.

“That greatly affected him even more than Hasan being there,” Autumn Manning said. “There’s a lot of survivor’s guilt that the soldiers have.”

He finished testifying soon after. Hasan declined to cross-examine him — a relief for the couple — and Manning was excused at 12:08 p.m. The couple left court together and were taken to another holding room to meet with counselors.

“Which is funny,” Manning said, “Because my husband  is a counselor.”

He seemed to feel better. The worst was past.

“You could tell instantly that a weight had been lifted off of him,” Manning said.

After they left court, they spent the rest of the day decompressing with other families. Two other witnesses, female soldiers, got matching tattoos.  One of them already had a tattoo that included the date of the attack, a living memorial.

The next morning, the Mannings flew home.

They didn’t follow the court-martial at first because it made Shawn Manning anxious. But they began to tune in again in recent days. They said were upset that the judge this week refused to allow prosecutors to present most of the evidence they had amassed of Hasan’s radical Muslim motives. They were also frustrated that the judge issued a gag order preventing Manning and other witnesses from speaking publicly until the case ends (his civil lawyer tried to challenge the order, but failed).

“We don’t even know when that gag order ends — nobody says if it’s the end of sentencing or the appeals,” she said, “Most of them don’t want to talk about their testimony — they want to talk about the denial of benefits. They can’t talk about how some of them had to go out of their own pockets and pay for their surgeries.”

She said the trial, which appeared to be winding down Tuesday, has drawn attention to the plight of some victims, and she hopes more will be able to speak before it ends, “It just gets lost and we get forgotten.”

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