By Gregg Zoroya, USA Today
Posted : Wednesday Nov 25, 2009 13:18:26 EST
Three weeks after 13 people were shot and killed at Fort Hood, Texas, new details are emerging about an Army Reserve captain who died trying to fight off the gunman before police arrived.
Investigators are still sorting out the actions of Capt. John Gaffaney, 56, a psychiatric nurse. But according to varying eyewitness accounts, Gaffaney either picked up a chair and threw it at Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused killer, or physically rushed him from across the room.
Army Maj. Gen. Lie-Ping Chang, commander of the reserve force to which Gaffaney belonged, said that two eyewitnesses recounted how the reservist threw a folding chair and “tried to knock (Hasan) down or knock his gun down.” Chang included this account in an essay submitted to USA Today.
Army Reserve Col. Kathy Platoni, a clinical psychologist who served with Gaffaney, said she was told that he rushed Hasan to within inches before being shot several times.
Platoni said she comforted Gaffaney as he lay dying in a building nearby where soldiers brought him after he was mortally wounded, ripping off pieces of their uniform to use as pressure bandages or tourniquets to stem his massive bleeding from multiple wounds.
“I just started talking to him and holding his hand and saying, ‘John, you’re going to be OK. You’re going to be OK. You’ve just got to fight,’” Platoni recalls.
He died shortly after that, she says. “I was still yelling, ‘John, don’t go. John, don’t go.’”
Regardless of what actions Gaffaney took, soldiers were able to escape the gunman when Gaffaney confronted him, Chang says. Gaffaney’s widow, Christine, said one female soldier told her that he saved her life.
“I have no idea precisely what his actions were,” says Army spokesman Jay Adams at Fort Hood. “But … I am sure there is truth in those accounts.”
The initial account of Gaffaney’s actions came from a USA Today interview with Chang about plans to replace 16 mental-health workers killed or wounded at Fort Hood. Investigators are still trying to determine precise details, including which police officer shot and wounded Hasan.
Initial reports, including from Chuck Medley, Fort Hood’s director of emergency services, were that police Sgt. Kimberly Munley had shot and wounded Hasan. On Nov. 11, however, senior police Sgt. Mark Todd, who had arrived at the shooting with Munley said in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey and the New York Times that he had shot and handcuffed Hasan. Todd declined comment further to the Times, citing the ongoing investigation.
Christine Gaffaney said accounts of her husband’s actions “didn’t surprise me. It sounded just like John. He wouldn’t be the one who would be ducking or staying out of harm’s way. He would have been trying to protect everyone else.”
Her husband was a psychiatric nurse preparing to deploy to Iraq. The couple’s home was in San Diego.
She says she learned of John Gaffaney’s actions while attending a memorial service at Fort Hood for the 13 killed. Among the dead was Army Capt. Russell Seager, 51, who had been teamed up with Gaffaney as a partner or “battle buddy” since their training exercises together.
A soldier approached her at Fort Hood to say John Gaffaney saved his life, she says. A chaplain who counseled grieving troops from Gaffaney’s unit also described her husband’s heroics.
John Gaffaney had arrived at Fort Hood the day before the shooting, his widow says. When she heard news of the shootings, Christine Gaffaney says she tried to call her husband’s cell phone and thought he didn’t answer because he was helping others.
She was stunned when an Army chaplain and casualty officer arrived at her door. “They didn’t even have to say anything,” she recalls. “I already knew.”
Christine Gaffaney says she had been confident her husband would be relatively safe during his yearlong deployment to Iraq, where violence has diminished and his assignment was inside a fortified installation.
“So when this happened, it was just — I couldn’t believe it,” she says.
The couple, married 33 years, have a son, Matthew.
Gaffaney was a supervisor for the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency assisting seniors who had financial problems or were victims of abuse. A Navy veteran who later served 15 years with the California Army National Guard before retiring as a major, he had been eager to re-join the military after Sept. 11, 2001.
Aware that the Army was in dire need of mental-health workers as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, Gaffaney took the lower rank of captain to serve as a psychiatric nurse in the Army Reserve.
“That didn’t bother him,” his widow says. “It was a calling.”
Gaffaney was an avid San Diego Padres fan who had restored a 1965 Mustang right down to the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror, and had purchased a Harley-Davidson motorcycle earlier this year.
“I want people to know that my husband was a hero,” says Christine Gaffaney. “(And) he was my best friend.”