Image: Kathy Platoni
Al Behrman  /  AP
U.S. Army Col. Kathy Platoni looks at the decorations placed in her yard and on her mailbox by her neighbors to welcome her home from a tour in Afghanistan, in Beaver Creek, Ohio, on Nov. 1. Col. Platoni was at Fort Hood, Texas, last year when a gunman killed 13 people.
updated 11/4/2010 2:33:06 PM ET 2010-11-04T18:33:06

On the doors of the U.S. Army Reserve's low-slung offices hang posters that proclaim "Battlemind — Armor For Your Mind."

Building that armor is the Reserve's 467th Combat Stress Control Detachment's specialty. The group of psychologists and social workers helps combat troops cope with everything from weathering domestic squabbles to withstanding a comrade's death in battle.

Over the last year, the healers have had to heal themselves.

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The Madison-based 467th had just arrived at Fort Hood to make final preparations for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. On Nov. 5, 2009, some soldiers from the unit were in the Texas post's medical building getting vaccinations and other tests when witnesses say an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan, opened fire on his fellow soldiers.

Dozens were wounded and 13 people were killed, including three members of the 467th: Maj. Libardo E. Caraveo, of Woodbridge, Va.; Sgt. Amy Krueger, of Kiel, Wis.; and Capt. Russell G. Seager, of Mount Pleasant, Wis. Six other members were wounded.

Weeks later, the tightly knit unit shipped out to Afghanistan, forcing members to somehow set aside their own grief to wade into others'. The 467th returned home just last week, days ahead of the shootings' first anniversary on Friday. Many members still haven't come to grips with it.

"This doesn't end in a day or a week or a month or a year," said Col. Kathy Platoni, a unit psychologist from Beavercreek, Ohio. "The whole unit has a broken heart. What happened was inconceivable, (that) such an event could occur on American soil and on an American military installation and our losses would be so much larger than life."

Hasan, who was not a member of the 467th but was supposed to deploy with the unit to Afghanistan, is charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted premeditated murder. The Army has barred unit members from talking about what happened on Nov. 5 because of the legal proceedings against the American-born Muslim.

Still, in emotional interviews with The Associated Press, several members of the unit described the year that has passed.

Everyone in the unit knew Caraveo, Krueger and Seager, said Sgt. Kara Kortenkamp, a 27-year-old social worker who joined the reserves as a sophomore in college and looked up to Krueger.

The unit's commander, Maj. Laura Suttinger, said the Army focused on the unit's mental state in the weeks between the shooting and deployment, making chaplains and psychologists available. Each morning in formation she delivered inspirational quotes to her troops and tried to persuade them to take advantage of the help.

The unit became even closer, said Suttinger, of Fort Atkinson, Wis. Then it scattered for Thanksgiving, a last visit home before they shipped out.

The Army gave each member of the unit a choice on whether to deploy. No one backed out.

"I ... just knew that there were guys overseas who needed us and they didn't have us yet and we needed to help them, too," said Kortenkamp, of La Crosse, Wis. "There really was never a doubt in my mind that I should keep going."

They arrived in Afghanistan emotionally and physically spent from dealing with the grief, adrenaline and nerves. But the battle mindset kicked in as the unit threw itself into its work and prepared to split up to field bases around the country. That was perhaps the most difficult moment for the unit as friends were forced to say goodbye for a year, Suttinger said.

The unit dedicated clinics at three bases to their fallen comrades, donned black bracelets honoring them and established a memorial wall with their photographs at the unit's Kandahar headquarters.

Conversations about Fort Hood continued through e-mails, Facebook, at dinner or "sitting on a pile of gravel outside our clinic," Platoni said.

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Suttinger, a 39-year-old with auburn hair and a runner's physique, tried to deal with the shootings by pouring herself into gym workouts, keeping a journal and reading books about Afghanistan, including "The Kite Runner" and "Three Cups of Tea." Those stories helped her feel as if the unit was doing good, important work.

In the field bases, meanwhile, the unit's psychologists and social workers tried to put their own problems behind a wall of armor long enough to empathize with combat troops.

The job was daunting, Platoni, 58, said. Her group spent 95 hours with infantry soldiers in their first week. She sometimes found it difficult to block out her own grief and empathize with other soldiers' problems, she said. Sometimes she broke down in tears herself during sessions with soldiers.

"I told them in therapy, I was in your shoes," she said. "It helps give you such a working knowledge of what it is to suffer at that level ... then you have to pull back enough to be objective. Sometimes it's hard to pull yourself up and dredge yourself through someone else's pain. But you get good at it with practice."

Now, looking back, unit members say they're amazed at themselves.

"You can live in a lot of different conditions and still help other people, have a good time, deal with your own emotional stuff. ... The versatility of humans in nature, I think is incredibly impressive," said Sgt. Dick Hurtig, 26, of Madison.

Kortenkamp said she doesn't want the shootings to define her. She hopes to go to graduate school. But she also never wants to forget the people she lost, or the ones who helped her rebuild.

"We all sort of leaned on each other and held each up when we needed to and pushed each other forward when we needed to. I think that's what got me through, what has kept me getting through it," said Kortenkamp as she wiped away tears. "I still think about it and I'll always think about it because I don't want to forget those people."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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