Victims of the Fort Hood shooting will soon be eligible to receive the Purple Heart, with Congress pushing ahead with a policy change that would officially recognize domestic terrorism as an issue, rather than the “workplace violence” designation the Obama administration had used.
The issue has been contentious since the 2009 attack, with victims and their family members saying Army Maj. Nidal Hasan’s shooting spree was clearly linked to the broader war on terror that the U.S. is fighting overseas.
For years, the families’ congressional allies had butted heads with the Obama administration, which balked at designating part of the U.S. the equivalent of a battlefield.
But the backers finally prevailed, writing the new terrorism designation into the annual defense policy bill that is speeding its way through Congress this month.
“It’s been a long fight, and we’ve always had some stumbling blocks, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed and will be very happy when this thing is signed by the president so we can go back to those people who have been waiting for some acknowledgment of their injuries,” Rep. John R. Carter, Texas Republican, told The Washington Times.
The White House did not have an immediate comment on the change Wednesday.
Hasan shouted “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” while going on his shooting spree that left 13 dead and more than 30 injured. In testimony, the American-born Muslim said he was receiving assistance from foreign terrorist sources, and an FBI investigation found he had been emailing with Anwar al-Awlaki, an al Qaeda leader who was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
Hasan was sentenced to the death penalty in 2013, but the appeals process is expected to last for years if not decades.
The new medal criteria will apply to all military members injured or killed at Fort Hood as well as to two soldiers attacked in a 2009 shooting outside an Arkansas recruiting office, Mr. Carter said.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, called the change “long overdue.” An aide said Mr. Cornyn will push the Pentagon to award the Purple Hearts as soon as possible after the defense bill is signed into law.
“This close-knit community has endured great loss in recent years, and I am pleased we are now one step closer to delivering this important piece of justice to the victims and their families,” Mr. Cornyn said in a statement.
The House is expected to vote on the defense bill this week and send it to the Senate for consideration next week.
Under current law, Purple Hearts can be awarded to members of the military who are killed by an enemy in battle or wounded severely enough to see a doctor. The issue, Mr. Carter said, is that those who opposed this change don’t believe the base near Killeen, Texas, is an “official battlefield.”
The administration officially classified the attack as a case of “workplace violence,” which some speculated was an attempt to not contradict statements from the president that al Qaeda’s influence was shrinking.
The Pentagon said in a 2013 letter that changing the medal criteria to include victims of Fort Hood could affect the integrity of the Purple Heart and “irrevocably alter the fundamental character of this time-honored decoration.” Defense officials also worried deeming the shooting an act of terrorism while legal proceedings take place would strip Hasan of his right to a fair trial.
Classifying the Fort Hood shooting, and potentially future attacks like it, as a terrorist attack would open up more benefits to the families of those who were killed, including combat-related compensation such as what a family would receive if a soldier was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
In addition, victims who survived would get benefits like priority care at Veterans Affairs facilities or waived copays. Some states also offer unique benefits, like free college tuition or special license plates.
The bill also entitles civilians killed or injured in the Fort Hood attack to receive the Medal for the Defense of Freedom.
The bill will make any members of the military who are killed in future attacks eligible for the medal, something especially important in today’s world, where members of the Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — from Europe or America can easily get into the country and target troops, said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican.
“No one knows what’s going to happen with the way the world is today. You have so many people [affiliated] with ISIS, a number of Americans who have come back, a number more who are going to come back and more from England, France [and] Scandinavia who can travel here on visas,” he said. “I think it’s very appropriate given the times we’re in now.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.