Fort Hood Massacre: One Year Later: A Survivor's Story
11/15/2010 at 01:00 AM EST
Every night, when Staff Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford Jr. closes his eyes, he finds himself in the middle of a bloody battlefield, gunshots popping and people all around him screaming and running away in panic. Then he feels the bullet hit him, blasting into the left side of his head, spinning him around while more bullets pound into his back. And when he wakes up, drenched in sweat, the first feeling that overwhelms him is: relief. "I am still living," he says quietly. "I am one of the survivors."
Lunsford has never served on a foreign battlefield. Instead, the Army Reserve combat medic was shot in the deadliest rampage to date on a U.S. Army post-the Nov. 5 Fort Hood, Texas, massacre that left 12 soldiers and 1 civilian dead and 32 others wounded. But the mental and physical scars Lunsford, 44, carries as a constant reminder of that horror also inspire him, he says, to "get everything I can out of every day," from telling his story to other wounded soldiers to marrying his sweetheart Gheri Weston, 42. Together the couple have a blended family of five children ranging from ages 10 to 18. "I am alive for a reason," he says, "and I am not going to waste that."
A year after the massacre, the alleged assailant, Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, 40, remains in a jail cell awaiting trial, paralyzed after being shot by responding police officers. And while Hasan, who is charged with multiple counts of murder and attempted murder, is expected back in court on Nov. 15, Lunsford is in the transitional battalion for wounded soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., struggling to put back together a life ripped apart. The gunshot wound to his head has permanently cost him the sight in his left eye. He sees a psychiatrist three times a week for PTSD and undergoes weekly physical therapy sessions to strengthen the muscles in his abdomen that were shredded by four bullets. "I was angry when the doctor told me I'd never use my eye again," Lunsford admits. "But now I know there are soldiers out there who have it worse than me, and I can reach out and relate to them in a way I never could before I was shot."
He takes his message of endurance to other wounded comrades as a member of the nonprofit Wounded Warriors project, as well as to local schools. "He allows students to make a personal connection, to see that we all have fortitude inside of us if we are willing to tap into it," says Dawn Terry, assistant principal at Lunsford's alma mater Richmond Senior High School in Rockingham, N.C., where he spoke to students in May.
The only child of a former-soldier-turned-police-officer father, Lunsford knew as a boy growing up in North Carolina that the Army would be his future. Because of his size-he is 6'9" and more than 200 lbs., which has earned him the nickname Big Mac-he says he often felt it was his destiny to protect those smaller or weaker and feels haunted that he was unable to do so that terrible day. It's a heavy burden that his wife, Gheri, an athletic trainer, sees him bear daily. "He is struggling with the price he's paid to serve his country in a way he never imagined, being shot in an office instead of on a battlefield," she says.
But in his darkest moments, when even the love of his family can't fade the images of blood and death, he forces himself to remember the little boy who visited his hospital bed after he'd been shot. Carrying a stack of drawings and a giant get-well card from his first-grade class, the boy "thanked me," remembers Lunsford. "And then he stepped back and rendered the most perfect salute I have ever seen in my life." Lunsford was humbled-and inspired. "It made me want to live. Someday I am going to put on my uniform and find him. And salute him right back."