Hansen: Face to face with horror of Fort Hood attack - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, August 11, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 1:17 am
Hansen: Face to face with horror of Fort Hood attack

Dr. Joe Jeanette reads the note and feels his face growing hot.

What is this guy's problem? What is wrong with him?

It is October 2009, and the young doctor, born and raised in Bellevue, now works as an Army surgeon at Fort Hood, Texas.

After seeing a patient with both physical and psychological problems, Jeanette has just requested a consultation with all of the patient's doctors. A normal enough request, he thought.

But the patient's psychiatrist, a doctor whom Jeanette had never met, didn't like it. He has responded in writing and has stuck the rude note in the patient's file.

Dr. Joe Jeanette

Jeanette reads it a second time, and a third. It strikes him as odd as it is unprofessional.

He yanks the office phone off its cradle and dials the psychiatric ward of the Fort Hood hospital.

Under different circumstances, this would have been an interoffice mosquito, the sort of irritant Jeanette complains to his wife about at night, swats at for a week and then forgets.

Instead it will become the first time Joe Jeanette brushes up close to a man whose mug shot will soon be plastered all over CNN.

It will become the sort of thing that Jeanette thinks about years later, when he meets with the lawyers and prepares to testify in the trial and is forced to roll the memory of the worst day of his life around in his mind. Then he can see the note written in the psychiatrist's scrawl. He can hear the voice of the secretary who picks up the phone in the psychiatric ward.

Hi, this is Dr. Joe Jeanette, he tells the secretary. Can I leave a message for — Jeanette fumbles in the file for the stranger's name — a Dr. Hasan?

Can you have Dr. Nidal Hasan call me please?

“He never did call me back,” Jeanette says. “And then it happened.”


Jeanette is pushing some papers around in his office weeks later, on Nov. 5, 2009, when a commanding officer flings open the door.

“We need you in the ER!” he yells. “Now!”

Jeanette jogs toward the emergency room.

Maybe a car wreck? A training exercise gone wrong?

Fresh off his residency at a Seattle hospital, Jeanette has served as a surgeon on this sprawling, 340-square-mile military base for only four months.

He has spent most of his time on what he calls “bread-and-butter general surgery.” Repairing hernias. Removing spleens and appendixes. Hemorrhoids.

Jeanette has wanted this career since before puberty. At age 12, he hung around the University of Nebraska Medical Center office of Dr. Michael Sorrell, a world-class gastroenterologist who started one of the country's first and best liver transplant programs. He treated Sorrell like other kids treated football players.

“I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” he remembers telling his parents, Joe Jeanette Sr. and Patty Demario.

He graduated from Omaha Gross High School in 1992. He graduated from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He attended a Kansas City medical school, then worked as a resident at the Nebraska Medical Center.

Today, he is a doctor.

He rounds the corner onto the main hallway that leads to the ER. He sees one young soldier with blood drenching his camouflage uniform. He sees another.

He starts to sprint.

He remembers the afternoon in vivid detail, remembers it so well that months later he writes a nine-page letter describing nearly every patient he sees and every move he makes to try to save them.

First patient: Gunshot wound to the back of the head. His heart stops beating. Jeanette slices into the center of his chest and massages his heart. It starts beating again.

Second patient: Gunshot wound to the right side of the neck. He's bleeding too much. Jeanette pulls off his dressings and manages to stanch the bleeding with direct pressure.

Another: Gunshot wound to the right flank. He can't wait for a chest X-ray. Jeanette inserts a chest tube. It quickly fills with blood.

Another: Gunshot wound to the left arm. Another: Gunshot wound to the abdomen, fractured neck. Another. Another. Another.

An hour becomes two, becomes eight. The patients and their operations blur together.

Jeanette does not have time to answer his beeper — it's his wife, also a doctor, frantically calling him again and again.

He does not have time to wonder whether this is the work of one gunman or a small army, whether it's a complete stranger or someone he knows.

Finally, after 14 hours in the emergency room, the pace slows.

Jeanette and the three other surgeons at the Fort Hood hospital have seen 19 wounded patients. Two have died. One of those dead is Jeanette's patient.

He rolls that patient around in his mind. Could he have gotten blood to the patient quicker? Would it have helped?

“I know that given the severity of his injuries, even at the best Level One trauma centers with the most experienced trauma surgeons, the patient would have probably still not survived,” Jeanette writes in his nine-page letter. “But it still tears me up inside.”

It is 3 a.m. when Jeanette finally learns what has happened. A man has walked into the soldier processing center, where young men and women go just before they deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq. He has started to shoot.

He has wounded 32 people. He has killed 13.

The suspected shooter is himself severely wounded, cut down by military police. He is in critical condition — maybe in a coma — at a San Antonio hospital.

The suspect's name: Dr. Nidal Hasan.


Dr. Joe Jeanette is back at Fort Hood, back in his old hospital, the day the phone rings.

It is 2012, right around the third anniversary of the worst on-base shooting in American history.

So much has happened. Less than a week after the shooting, he had met a high-profile guest touring the hospital.

Hi, I'm Dr. Joe Jeanette. Nice to meet you, Mr. President. Let me introduce you to our patients.

Three months after the shooting, he had landed in Afghanistan, where he served one six-month tour, and then another, first in a rugged, remote part of northern Afghanistan and then in an even more dangerous area hard up to the Pakistan border.

He operated on U.S. special operations forces and Afghan National Army soldiers. On several occasions he operated on and saved the lives of Taliban commanders and foot soldiers — men who hours earlier had been planting roadside bombs or shooting at Jeanette's fellow Americans.

“That's when you focus on the Hippocratic oath,” he says.

And now he is back at Fort Hood, serving out his final months before he leaves the military.

This is when the phone rings.

Hasan is in bad shape, says the voice on the other end of the line. We're bringing him in.

Hasan is being held prisoner at Fort Hood. His military trial has been delayed by months of legal wrangling, some of it related to whether or not he can keep his beard in accordance with Muslim custom.

A decision by the Pentagon to declare the Fort Hood shooting an act of workplace violence instead of an act of terrorism has infuriated many victims' families.

As he awaits trial, Hasan remains in poor health after being shot four times by military police. He is paralyzed from the waist down and has frequent medical complications.

This is why he needs to come to the ER.

This is why the man suspected of carrying out the Fort Hood shootings needs medical help from the same doctors who once worked to save the people he shot.

He is brought in a side door so the other patients don't know he is there.

Jeanette is standing ready to care for Hasan if needed.

Jeanette cannot see the alleged murderer — he never sets eyes upon him — but he can hear him.

Hasan is yelling. He is yelling at the top of his lungs. He is yelling something that turns Jeanette's face boiling red.

“I made America better!” he is yelling. “I made America better!”

“I made America better!”


This week, if things go as planned, Dr. Joe Jeanette will walk through an entrance protected by a three-story, makeshift security barricade. He will walk past military guards brandishing assault rifles.

He will enter a courthouse in Killeen, Texas. He will climb onto the witness stand in the trial of Dr. Nidal Hasan.

Things may not go at all as planned. The first week of the trial — a trial that might end with the military's executing a defendant for the first time in a half-century — has veered this way and that.

Hasan, who is representing himself, has acknowledged he was the shooter. He is cross-examining people he's charged with shooting. His military-appointed lawyers, serving as his legal advisers, have tried to quit, citing their belief that Hasan is intentionally trying to lose the case so he can be martyred by military execution. The judge has denied their request.

This is the bizarre scene that Jeanette will walk into, probably to testify about the carnage he saw on the day of the shooting spree.

The doctor from Bellevue has been thinking about his testimony for a while. He's been thinking what he will do with his eyes.

He does not want to stare down Hasan, to try to burn holes in the back of his head.

That would probably give the radicalized psychiatrist some satisfaction, and satisfaction is the last thing that Jeanette would like to give Hasan.

But neither does he want to stare at the floor, to make Hasan believe he is intimidated.

For the first time in his life, Dr. Joe Jeanette will actually lay eyes on the alleged killer he knows only by those fateful brushes — the rude note, the sound of Hasan's screaming and, worst of all, the sight of the bleeding soldiers, the sight of what Hasan wrought.

And so Dr. Joe Jeanette has a plan for when he climbs onto the witness stand.

He will meet Hasan's gaze. He will stay calm. And if he can make his eyes talk, this is what they will say.

I am a real doctor. This is what a real doctor looks like. This is how a real doctor acts.

“What he did as a human being, what he did as a physician — it is unfathomable,” says Jeanette. “I want every victim who wants the chance to face him to be able to sit and face this guy. I want to sit and face this guy. I want to show him who I am. I want to show him that I'm not afraid.”

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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