KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s been nearly 13 years since Keara Torkelson sat in a room at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas, filling out paperwork in preparation to deploy to Iraq.
Nearby, in the same room that day — Nov. 5, 2009 — was a man named Nidal Hassan, a U.S. Army major and military psychiatrist who was set to deploy with Torkelson’s unit.
Hassan, a radicalized Islamic extremist, had no intention of deploying overseas and instead opened fire, killing 13 people and injuring 33 more — including Torkelson, who went by her maiden name Bono at the time.
“We were sitting in rows of chairs and I was waiting for an Army doc just to check off my box so I could get deployed,” Torkelson said. “A man stood up in front of the group of chairs that I was in and shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ and started shooting directly into the crowd that I was in.”
Torkelson, a 2006 Olathe South graduate who enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve out of high school, suffered a graze wound to her head before dropping to the ground.
“I grabbed the top of my head and I saw there was blood, but I thought it was a training exercise,” she said. “I thought this was fake because you never think something like this is going to happen in the United States before I get to Iraq.”
Soon, a mixture of shock and adrenaline kicked in as Torkelson realized Fort Hood was indeed under attack. She called 911 and tried to flee the building.
“People kept telling me to sit down because I had a head injury, so there was a lot of blood and it probably looked pretty terrifying to everyone else,” she said. “But I was in fight-or-flight and I was getting out of there.”
As she scrambled with her sergeant to escape, Torkelson — a human resource specialist with a combat and operational stress control unit, managing paperwork and assisting Army psychologists and psychiatrist — was shot in the back, but she survived.
Torkelson will be among 12 Purple Heart recipients honored Saturday during Sporting Kansas City’s match against the LA Galaxy during the fifth annual Sporting Salutes at Children’s Mercy Park. National Purple Heart Day is on Sunday.
“For us, we can’t thank them enough,” Sporting KC forward Khiry Shelton said. “There’s no action or amount of words that can be said or done to thank them.”
Shelton — whose father, Mike, was a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army — was born at Fort Carson in Colorado and spent the first six years of his life in Büdingen, Germany, after his dad was stationed at the now-closed Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt.
He understands the sacrifices military families make and appreciates the club’s effort to honor military service, especially those who were wounded in service to the U.S.
“It's a huge deal for us here at Sporting and I personally like to thank Sporting for that, because it's difficult growing up in that environment and with that culture,” Shelton said. “It's just different. Any service member — obviously, they're very brave, very courageous. Their purpose is to keep us safe, so we have security and everything. So, it's important; it's very important.”
Torkelson also appreciates Sporting KC making an effort to recognize the sacrifice she and so many others have made.
“I think it's incredible,” she said. “I am so honored for them to do this and to take the time to do that. I think it means so much even to the other gentlemen that are with me, because some of them are a lot older and they didn't get that recognition that they deserved. They didn't get treated appropriately, so I think this is amazing.”
Torkelson said she wouldn’t change her experience “as horrible as it was,” because it’s allowed her to become an advocate for and mentor to other military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“Speaking about it really has helped me and then helping other veterans has been huge in my healing,” Torkelson said.
She volunteers as a mentor with The Battle Within, an Olathe-based nonprofit that helps veterans and others battling PTSD, and also helps with the Wounded Warrior Project, a national nonprofit that works with physically and mentally injured veterans and service members.
Shelton, who has several other family members who’ve served in the military or worked as first-responders, hoped to be able to speak with the 12 people being honored: “It’s humbling,” he said.
In addition to Torkelson, 11 other Purple Heart recipients from the Kansas City area — Justin Hoover, Glen Leonard, John McClellan, Hugh Mills, Anthony O’Connell, Richard Pustka, Walt Schley, Adriel “Brad” Sanchez, Larry Slavens, Eugene “Ted” Wakeman and Steven Woelk — will be honored during Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. and airs on 38 The Spot.