Accustomed to terrible human loss overseas, the United States Army was last night struggling to come to terms with a savage outbreak of violence at home after an officer opened fire on the sprawling Fort Hood military base in Texas, which is at the tip of the spear of regular US troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
After hours of confusion when the entire complex – the largest such base in the world – located between Waco and Austin, was on a security lockdown, a military spokesman confirmed that the rampage had ended with the deaths of 12 people and the wounding of 31 others. Most of the injured had been rushed to hospitals across central Texas. The shock that was rippling across the country last night was hardly relieved after the shooter was identified as a trusted officer with medical duties. Officials said that Major Nadal Malik Hasan, a licensed doctor and psychiatrist, was shot and wounded by military police at the scene but not before he had extinguished the lives of 12 people. Military sources added that two other soldiers were apprehended after the slaughter, though by dusk last night one had been released. There was no information on what role the second may have had in the killings if any. Hasan opened fire, they said, with two handguns. There was no reason he should have been bearing arms as a doctor.
Major Hasan, said to be 39 years old, allegedly opened fire at roughly 1.30 pm, Texas time, inside a personnel processing building formally known as the Soldier Rating and Processing Center. It is a building soldiers routinely pass through while getting ready to deploy. However, at least one of the victims, was identified as a civilian.
A motive for the shooting was hard to pin down last night. However, there were reports that Hasan, who was trained also in psychiatry and medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, was preparing for deployment to Iraq and was not happy to be going there. He had previously worked at the Walter Reed veterans hospital outside Washington.
There have been six incidents on the ground in Iraq since the start of the conflict when US troops have been felled by one of their own with the loss of 14 lives. Last May, a soldier opened fire on fellow soldiers in a medical facility at Camp Liberty outside Baghdad killing five.
Lt General Bob Cone spoke to reporters on the perimeter of the base. "We have had a terrible tragedy at Fort Hood today. The situation is ongoing but we are very close to a resolution," he said, almost three hours after the first shots were fired.
"The numbers that we are looking at are 12 dead and 31 wounded." The wounded were being treated in hospitals across central Texas, he said.
The shooting will rekindle debate about the strains that have been placed for years on the US military community after eight years of conflict in Afghanistan and almost as many years in Iraq. For months, military leaders have been seeking ways to monitor the mental health of soldiers precisely to guard against such deadly tragedies. Fort Hood is home to a programme set up to help returning soldiers cope with stress incurred by warfare.
In Washington aides kept President Barack Obama abreast of developments at the huge complex that includes housing areas and several schools. Mr Obama called the shootings "horrifying". Attending a conference on Native American rights, he added: "My immediate thoughts and prayers are with the wounded and with the families of those who have fallen... we will make sure we get answers to every single question about this horrible incident".
For soldiers who are trained to face possible injury or worse while deployed abroad, there was no emotional preparation for the shock of such an indiscriminate act of mass killing taking place on US soil and indeed within the confines of one of their own bases where they would have considered themselves entirely safe.
"I am horrified just like everyone else," Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a US Senator for Texas, said of the killings. "This is a base that has sent people time and time again to Iraq and now to Afghanistan. They have borne a lot of the responsibility for the war on terror and for this to happen at this particular base is heartbreaking."
As many as 500 military personnel were mobilised at one stage to conduct a sweep of the base to ensure its security. Witnesses on the edge of the facility meanwhile saw ambulances coming and going from the main entrance and helicopters landing inside it to ferry the severely wounded to nearby hospitals.
Members of families were also assembled on parking lots on the edge of the base trying to determine whether any of their loved ones may have been hurt or killed in the shootings.
Fort Hood has close to 50,000 soldiers assigned to it. In addition, it is home to many military families. As well as sending solders into harm's way in war zones – no other military base in the US has lost more men and women in Iraq than Fort Hood – it has seen many wounded soldiers returning from war.
Fort Hood: The world's largest military base
* Fort Hood, near Austin, Texas, is the world's largest military installation, occupying 340 square kilometres.
* It is home to more than 65,000 soldiers, civilian personnel and family members.
* Two armoured divisions are based there, and up to 40,000 US troops.
* It was opened in 1942, as a place to test anti-tank guns that were crucial to combating German blitzkrieg tactics.
* 75 troops at the base have committed suicide between the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and July this year – more than at any other army post.
* The base is home to III Corps, the official counteroffensive force, who are known as "America's Hammer."
* In January 2003, then President George W Bush addressed 4,500 troops at the base, and told them to be ready for war.
* The base's Fourth Infantry Division captured Saddam Hussein in 2003.