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Funerals for Students Shot in the Head; Obama Signs Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill

Aired February 12, 2015 - 14:00   ET


BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, there, I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you so much for being with me today.

You're watching CNN and right now I wanted to share some live pictures with you. Incredibly solemn moments here in Raleigh, North Carolina, as this prayer service is under way for the three Muslim students murdered in North Carolina.

Despite what police are saying, the family and friends of these three young victims insist they were killed because of their faith, and it's now faith, the father says, that is the only thing easing his grief over the loss of his two daughters.


MOHAMMAD ABU-SALHA, FATHER OF TWO SLAIN STUDENTS: This is the only comfort I can ever have. It's never pain free. But we're hoping that one day we'll be with them in the right place in the right way.


BALDWIN: Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha and Yusor's husband, Deah Barakat, are to be buried within hours. Right now, as we've been showing you, this prayer service is happening. And just last night -- I mean, just stunning, beautiful photos here from my alma mater. This is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This is the pit, this is the middle of campus.

Hundreds and hundreds of people pay tribute at this vigil remembering the selfless deeds and good hearts of these three victims.

Barakat was a second year dental student there. His wife was about to begin the very same program in the fall, and Razan was studying architecture not too far away in Raleigh at North Carolina State. Their futures were cut short after this man, investigators say, Craig Stephen Hicks, shot each of the victims in the head.

Chapel Hill Police say they are not ruling out this is a hate crime, but at this point in time, the attack appears to be over parking at the apartment complex where the shooter and this couple lived. However, family members say the couple felt Hicks picked on them because of their faith.

Barakat's sister broke down, speaking with my colleague Anderson Cooper about this. I want you to watch.


DR. SUZANNE BARAKAT, SISTER OF MUSLIM STUDENT KILLED: That basically he had said because of the way you look, I'm not comfortable with, A, the way you look and -- I'm really sorry.


BARAKAT: This is really hard.

COOPER: I know.

BARAKAT: I go from being in denial to being really numb to being really angry. I came here today in hopes of shining light on Deah's legacy, and Yusor's and Razan's. They all had so much to offer and I just want to make sure that we continue that legacy for them, in their name, in their honor, and that all of us as Americans collectively -- not let their deaths go in vain.


BALDWIN: We'll be talking to a cousin and an aunt next hour, but with me right now, religion editor for, Daniel Burke.

And, Daniel, I know you've been poring over the suspect's entire religious postings on social media. I mean, is there anything to point a finger at Craig Hicks and the fact that he specifically hates Muslims?

DANIEL BURKE, CNN.COM RELIGION EDITOR: Well, Brooke, when it comes to Craig Hicks' Facebook page, he's kind of an equal opportunity critic when it comes to religion. He espouses a view that's called ante- theism, which is a form of atheism. And basically if you think of an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in God. An ante-theist is someone who doesn't believe in God and also doesn't think that other people should either.

And so when you -- when you kind of pore through his Facebook page, you see dozens and dozens of posts making fun of religion in general, making fun of the idea of prayer, the idea of God. A lot of these are quotes from people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, but I didn't see anything that was violent and I didn't see anything that particularly pertained to Islam.

In fact there are a couple of instances in which he seems to implicitly defend Islam. There's a post from around the time when they wanted to build a mosque near ground zero in New York where he calls out conservative critics who didn't want the plan to go forward saying, hey, you guys are being hypocrites. If you were allowed your freedom of worship, Muslims should be allowed, too.

He also called out conservatives who made -- you know, spread rumors about President Obama being Muslim. He said, so what if he is Muslim? It's OK if we have a Muslim president. So his views against religion are kind of -- very anti-religious, but nothing specifically against Islam, but of course this probably is cold comfort for the families, the victims' families down in North Carolina who certainly see this as a hate crime directed at their loved ones.

BALDWIN: They sure do. You mentioned a couple of people who were quoted on this Facebook page. I'm curious what other ante-theist or just atheists, in general, how they've reacted to these senseless murders.

BURKE: Well, it's been interesting, Brooke. It's kind of a role reversal. You know, for years we've had people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris argue that Islam is inherently violent and that all Muslims kind of share the blame, share some culpability for atrocities carried out in the name of their religion.

And so when Craig Hicks' atheist views came out yesterday, when they came to light yesterday, you had a number of atheist groups very quickly denouncing them and saying, you know, atheism is not about violence, it's about letting people have whatever views they want to have even though we disagree with them, but also that this guy does not represent atheism. It's a kind of peaceful belief just as, you know, other beliefs are peaceful.

But there are other atheists who say, you know what, we should take a look at the rhetoric that we're using about religion, specifically Islam, you know, whether we're fomenting this kind of attitude of hated. Islam has been in the hot seat for the last decade, at least, and maybe atheists who've kind of toned down the rhetoric a little bit, they're saying -- and kind of turned down the heat a little bit.

BALDWIN: Daniel Burke, thank you so much, from our CNN Belief blog.

You know, we know police are investigating, could this be a hate crime, what specifically did Yusor and her husband Deah experience with this suspect Craig Hicks.

I know Yusor's father, we heard him earlier saying, he absolutely believes that this was -- that this was targeted. You heard him saying, Hicks only started bothering the newlyweds once Yusor moved in back in December. Take a listen.


ABU-SALHA: My daughter, Yusor, honest to god, told us on more than two occasions that this man came knocking at the door and fighting about everything with a gun on his belt more than twice. She told us, daddy, I think he hates us for who we are and how we look.

My son-in-law lived there for a year and a half, and he never had a problem. He never complained. So my daughter moves in, in December, and she wears the Muslim garb and she looks clear, and her friends and her sister visit, and this all starts happening. She moves in, all of a sudden there is a problem, and there is gun, and there is hate, and there is bad talk.


BALDWIN: Kami Simmons is a professor of law at Wake Forest University and a hate crime expert.

So, Kami, I mean, obviously we're not on the inside of the investigation, but from what you can gain, I mean, who are police talking to, what are they looking at to determine if, in fact, this was motivated based upon these victims' faith, culture?

Yes. Thank you, Brooke. I think that I speak for everyone --

BALDWIN: Actually, forgive me. Let me cut you off right now. I definitely want to return to this but we have to go to the White House and I want to listen to President Obama speak about something he's about to sign for veterans.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A moving tribute to your friend and your brother-in-arms. I think it's clear that Clay Hunt lives on in you and your devotion to his memory and your commitment to our country, so, Jake, on behalf of all of us, but especially, I think, on behalf of Clay's family and all of his friends and fellow veterans who loved him, too, thanks for your extraordinary service.

Today we honor a young man who isn't here but should be here. Clay Hunt was a proud Texan. As a boy, I understand he collected turtles, which was ironic for a kid who, by all accounts, never sat still.


He loved the outdoors. He knew every inch of his grandparents' ranch where he fished and hunted all year long. A decorated Marine, he served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan. He suffered physical -- injuries that healed, and he suffered invisible wounds that stayed with him. And by all accounts, he was selfless and he was brave.

And when he died in 2011, it was a heartbreaking loss for his family, his fellow Marines and our nation. Because Clay had already done a great deal of good in the world. And the truth is, he was just getting started.

So we're here today to pick up where Clay left off. The best way to honor this young man who should be here is to make sure that more veterans like him are here for all the years to come and able to make extraordinary contributions building on what they've already done for our safety and our security.

Clay was a passionate advocate for veterans. And now more than ever that's something we're all called to be. After 13 years, our combat mission in Afghanistan is over, and a new generation of veterans is coming home.

Like Clay, they are talented and they are ready to roll up their sleeves and begin the next chapter of their lives. Starting companies, going back to school, reentering the work force, raising families, becoming leaders in every field. And whether they found a new path or just starting out on their new civilian life, one thing is certain. Every single veteran in America has something extraordinary to give to this country. Every single one. At the same time, too many of our troops and veterans are still

struggling. They're recovering from injuries, they're mourning fallen comrades. They're trying to reconnect with family and friends who can never fully understand what they went through in war theater. For them the war goes on, and the flashbacks that came rushing forward and the nightmares that don't go away.

And that tension between then and now that struggled to make the transition from war to home is one that Clay Hunt knew all too well. In Iraq and Afghanistan, he lost good friends. After one buddy died, Clay slept in his empty bunk for a while to stay close just a little longer. A few weeks later, another friend was fatally shot right in front of him. There was nothing Clay could do to save him, but he was still racked with grief and guilt.

When he got home, he found it hard to sleep and hard to go to football games or anywhere that was loud or crowded.

Now part of what made him remarkable was he was able to name the problem. He understood it. Like many of our troops and veteran, Clay had post-traumatic stress. And as a country, we've been doing more to help our troops and veterans deal with injuries like post-traumatic stress. We've been doing more awareness, more outreach, and more counselors have been put in place to improve access to care. Been doing more research, prevention -- into prevention and treatment.

And we've been saying loud and clear to anyone out there who's hurting, it's not a sign of weakness to ask for help. It's a sign of strength. And Clay Hunt was strong that way, he asked for help. In fact, he did everything that we urge people with post-traumatic stress to do. He reached out to his family. They embraced him with love. He opened up to other veterans, and they were there for him, too. He sought treatment, not once but repeatedly, and he channeled his stress into service as part of Team Rubicon.

As Jake described, he went to Haiti after the earthquake to help families rebuilt. He refurbished bikes for injured veterans. Clay joined Wounded Warriors Rides. He even appeared in a public service announcement encouraging veterans having a tough time to reach out for help because he knew that even though you can't see it, post-traumatic stress is an injury just like any other and the stigma has to end.

And Clay received care through the VA. But his struggle to get the right medication and the right disability rating. And by the time the severity of his condition was recognized, it was too late, and Clay had taken his life just weeks before. And he was 28 years old.

Amid unimaginable grief, Clay's family, Jake and his fellow veterans, made it their mission to spare any more families the pain they endured. So they shared Clay's story far and wide. And they reached out to members of Congress, and they lobbied and they testified, and made personal appeals.

And thanks to their tireless efforts, and we are particularly grateful to Clay's family being able to transform grief into action, today I will sign the Clay Hunt SAV Act into law. And SAV stands for Suicide Prevention for American Veterans. It helps fill critical gaps in serving veterans with post-traumatic stress and other illnesses. It increases peer support and outreach to service members transitioning to civilian life.

It recruits talented psychiatry students to work at the V.A. after graduation. It makes it easier for veterans to find the care they need when they need it. And it includes strict accountability measures so we can track and continually improve these efforts as we learn more.

Now this law is not a complete solution. We've still got a lot more work to do. Our Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Bob McDonald, is here and is doing a terrific job pushing reforms to get our veterans the care that they deserve. But one of the messages I want to make sure to deliver today -- and I know that the First Lady and Jill Biden and others have been delivering this continually through their Joining Forces effort.

This is not just a job for government. Every community, every American, can reach out and do more with and for our veterans. This has to be a national mission. As a nation, we should not be satisfied -- will not be satisfied -- until every man and woman in uniform, every veteran, gets the help that they need to stay strong and healthy. And this law will not bring Clay back, as much as we wish it would. But the reforms that it puts in place would have helped.

And they'll help others who are going through the same challenging process that he went through. So this is a good day, and we pay tribute to everyone who helped to make it possible.

We want to thank Clay's family, especially his mom and stepfather, Susan and Richard Selke, his father and stepmother, Stacy and Dianne Hunt.

You guys never stopped fighting for Clay, and for all the families who have lost sons and daughters, as well. And as a commander-in-chief and as a father, I can't think of a more beautiful and special way to honor your son. So we thank you very much.


We want to thank Jake and all those who served with Clay, who protected him and loved him like a brother, and all the veterans service organizations that fought for this law and who advocated so passionately for those who have served. We thank all the military families who have lost a loved one, families here today who channeled their grief into helping others. They believe, as we all do, that we have to end this tragedy of suicide among our troops and veterans.

I want to thank the members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, who worked to get this done. I want to give a special acknowledgement to somebody who knows a little bit about service, Senator John McCain.


Dick Blumenthal, we're grateful for your efforts. Representative Jeff Miller. My home girl from the Chicago area.


Tammy Duckworth, couldn't be prouder of her.


And Tim Walz, thank you so much for the great work.


And just to be clear about the bipartisanship here, this is one of those areas where we can't have an argument. Now Clay's parents are Texas Republicans.


And I'm not -- I mean, that's not just run-of-the-mill Republican.


And they -- and they worked with, you know, this entire spectrum, conservatives, liberals, and that's just a reminder of what we can accomplish when we take a break from, you know, the partisan bickering that so often dominates this town and focus on what really matters to the American people.

I wish I had gotten a chance to know Clay. But in a way I feel that I do because there are a lot of incredible men and women all across this country who, like Clay, just love their country and want to -- want to serve. Michelle and I have had a chance to meet so many of them. And it's such an incredible privilege.

And I think of the soldiers I sat down with at Fort Bliss a few years ago, and they told me they were proud to serve but struggled with challenges like post-traumatic stress. Told me about the challenges they had in getting support and treatment and managing their medications. Staying strong for their families and fellow soldiers, and most of all, the challenge of asking for help which is hard to do for folks who are used to helping others.

I think of Staff Sergeant Ty Carter whom I awarded the Medal of Honor. He survived an unimaginable battle in Afghanistan and carried a badly wounded comrade to safety, as tough as they come. But he, too, acknowledged before the ceremony and talked about it publicly, his struggles with post-traumatic stress. At first he resisted even seeking help, but eventually he reached out for the care that he need.

And today he is transitioning to civilian life. He started his own business. And he travels across the country as an advocate helping veterans and other Americans turn their struggles into a source of strength.

I think of the college student who recently wrote me a letter on Christmas Day. This is as tough a letter as I've received since I've been president. She talked about her father, who is a retired Marine. And told me about how her dad used to love to hunt and fish and spend time with her and her little brother, but gripped with post-traumatic stress, he became less like himself and withdrew from the family.

And yet despite these struggles, she wrote, "I knew that my dad was still in there somewhere. He's still my father and I'm still his little girl." And she was writing, she said, to ask for help. Help her father find his way back. Not for my family, Mr. President, she said, I'm asking you to help the others. Other families like hers. And she said, don't forget about them. And that's really what today is about. Don't forget.

So today we say again, to every person in uniform, every veteran who has ever served, we thank you for your service, we honor your sacrifice, but sometimes, you know, talk is cheap. And sometimes, you know, particularly at a time when we've got an all-volunteer for force, so often we can celebrate them at a ball game, but too many are insulated from the impacts. We got to also act. We can't just talk.

So we're ready to help you begin the next chapter of your lives. And if you are hurting, know this, you are not forgotten, you are not alone, you are never alone. We are here for you. America is here for you, all of us, and we will not stop doing everything in our power to get you the care and support you need to stay strong and keep serving this country we love.

We need you. We need you. You make our country better. So I thank all of you. God bless our troops, our veterans, our military families. God bless the United States of America.

And with that I want Michelle to -- and Clay's family and our other guests to join us on stage so I can sign the Clay Hunt SAV Act into law.


BALDWIN: There, too, are our men and women in uniform. We're going to stay on this picture. See the guy on the screen? That's Jake Wood, that's the Jake the president kept referring to, a dear friend of Clay Hunt's.

Clay Hunt -- yes, his name is familiar. You're asking me on Twitter. It should be. We've been covering this story. I talked to his parents just a couple of months ago. I mean, let me just underscore. This is a really big deal for veterans in this country.

Clay hunt served valiantly both in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he took his life when he was 28, and so his parents have been fighting to help other veterans coming home, suffering a different kind of war. Here they were our conversation from November.


BALDWIN: You joined me from Washington because to bring this entirely full circle, you want to help other families. And I want you to tell me about the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention bill that you so badly want this Congress to pass. SUSAN SELKE, MOTHER OF CLAY HUNT: Our hearts are with all the

veterans out there. Active duty servicemen and women and all the veterans. We can't bring Clay back. But what we can do, hopefully, is use that experience that he had and what we've been able to learn about it to try to get the mental health care piece that they need if they need that from the V.A. to have that be something that they can access, state-of-the-art care just as the V.A. can give them. State- of-the-art care for their physical injuries. We hope very much that they can get state-of-the-art care for their mental injuries as well.

RICHARD SELKE, FATHER OF CLAY HUNT: Clay, like thousands and thousands of other men and women, voluntarily signed up for the Marines. He risked his life. He was given the best training he possibly could receive. He went on two tours, one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. He came back. He was told that the V.A., that the U.S. government would take care of him, and he believed that.

You know, you can't see this type of trauma that happens emotionally to -- because of PTS and because of traumatic brain injury and other experiences. If you don't see that --


BALDWIN: And now you have it. Thanks for the perseverance of that mother and father and this Congress and the president's flick of a pen, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act is now law.

Again, thank you to our men and women in uniform.

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