The Survivors

Nader Hasan and Kerry Cahill might never have met except for an unspeakable tragedy: on November 5, 2009, in a mass shooting at Fort Hood, his cousin—Army major Nidal Malik Hasan—killed her father. Now they are bound by a joint mission: to reclaim some good from their shared horror.
The Survivors
Photograph by Wes Frazer

Kerry Cahill paced the floor of a classroom at Nazareth College of Rochester, in New York, explaining to the group of fidgety teenagers in blue Rochester Global Citizenship Conference T-shirts why she and her companion, Nader Hasan, were there. They’d come, she said, to offer their perspective on the terrible tragedies that can happen when people become too isolated and misguided. Nader, a compact 42-year-old with thinning hair and sad gray eyes, leaned against the teacher’s desk as if weighted down. He asked the kids if they knew what had happened at Fort Hood. He got a chorus of bland yeses.

“That was my cousin who did that,” he said. His voice grew so quiet that the students had to strain to hear him finish. “My cousin killed Kerry’s father.”

Seventy heads swiveled toward Kerry, a willowy six-foot blonde dressed in gray and black. She nodded with her eyes squeezed shut, as if to say, “Yes, really.”

It had been two and a half years since her father died, and she still sometimes could not believe it. She had spent months preparing for this moment in mid-March, trading emails and texts with Nader and talking on the phone for hours. The two had been invited to speak at a high school conference on religious tolerance, 1,600 miles from the spot where their lives became horrifically intertwined on November 5, 2009. They had come hoping to reclaim some good from the terror of that day.

Kerry showed photos of her dad, Michael Cahill, a big guy with a white beard who looked like Santa Claus. A 29-year-old actress who lives in New Orleans, she grew up the youngest of three military brats. Her father, she explained, had worked at Fort Hood as a civilian physician’s assistant for seven years. He was known to everyone as Doc Cahill and had a reputation for getting soldiers whatever they needed—a correct diagnosis, meds, a pass on redeploying—even if he had to fight for it.

The day Michael died, he had been back at work for a week after recovering from a heart attack. The deadliest shooting ever on an American military base began when U.S. Army major and psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan—whose sparse hair and high forehead vaguely resemble Nader’s—tucked a semiautomatic pistol into his combat uniform, along with sixteen extra magazines and a backup revolver, and drove from his grungy Killeen apartment to Fort Hood. He made his way to the Soldier Readiness Processing Center, where medical personnel were assessing hundreds of deploying soldiers. Once inside, Nidal screamed, “Allahu Akbar!” and began shooting into the crowd. Within ten minutes, 32 people were wounded and 13 more lay dead. Nidal kept firing until an exchange of bullets with two police officers left him paralyzed below the chest.

Kerry was in Chicago at the time and watched the news unspool at the home of a friend who happened to have lost his partner during 9/11. She tried calling her father but got no response. She began dialing every Texas hospital reported to be treating Fort Hood victims but found out nothing. The longer her family went without hearing from him, the more she hoped her dad was unreachable because he was in an ambulance or on an operating table. She kept thinking about how she and her mother, Joleen, had asked him if he really felt ready to go back to work.

At 11:15 that evening, an Army sergeant and a chaplain arrived at Joleen’s door, in Cameron. Michael Cahill, they reported, was the only civilian killed at Fort Hood that day. Witnesses would later recall him trying, amid the bap-bap-bap of gunfire, to protect soldiers by grabbing a chair and rushing Nidal. It took six gunshots to fell him. When Kerry received the news from her sister, she beat her fist on her friend’s kitchen table and wailed.

One time zone away, Nader, a successful lawyer in Washington, D.C., was leaving a golf course when he got a call saying that his first cousin had been wounded in a shooting at Fort Hood. The son of Palestinian immigrants, Nader had grown up with Nidal in the suburbs of the nation’s capital. As he pecked out a quick email on his phone to thirty classmates in a local civic leadership program, explaining why he would miss their gathering that night, Nader wondered what kind of kook would open fire at a military base. He sped to his mother’s home, a block away from his own. As he parked, his phone buzzed with a friend’s worried message: Had he watched the news?

Inside, Nader’s mother, Nawal, was weeping. A talking head on TV was reporting that the gunman, who had trained as a terrorist in Syria, was none other than his cousin. Nader’s thoughts pinballed: Nidal? His sweet-faced childhood playmate? The one who wouldn’t take a swing when Nader and his brother brawled? The one who never dated because his parents didn’t approve, who butchered what Arabic he tried to speak, who hadn’t ever been near Syria?

Just that morning, Nader had celebrated the launch of a wounded-warrior support website he’d helped set up for his dearest friend, a Marine who was recovering from being shot in the head by a sniper in Iraq. Now the incongruity was too much. “I have a major hero, my best friend,” Nader told me later, “and a major horror, my cousin.”

Nearly a year after the attack, in October 2010, Nawal would travel alone to Texas to hear for herself what her nephew had done. During the second week of Nidal’s Article 32 hearing to determine whether the evidence against him merited a full trial, Nawal entered the cramped military courtroom, dressed in a dark suit and carrying a shopping bag filled with home-cooked Middle Eastern food for her nephew. She looked stricken when he was rolled into the room in a wheelchair.

Sitting across the aisle from her was Joleen. As she struggled to understand what had motivated

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week