If it’s true that tragedy forges the strongest of bonds, then Killeen, Texas, must be unbreakable.
Whiteside County native Dan Corbin understands that bond better than most. Corbin, who grew up on a dairy and hog farm near Lyndon, has lived a life defined by service to country and community – the embodiment of the city that is home to the sprawling military installation of Fort Hood.
Killeen is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Its population of 134,000 represents a 47 percent increase from 2002 to 2010. There are about 45,000 military personnel and 9,000 civilian employees at Fort Hood.
Corbin has been in Killeen since 1971, when he spent time on the base after his Vietnam deployment. He has been there for three of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. While all were equally devastating, Wednesday’s tragedy is a little different for Corbin. This time he is the mayor of a grieving community.
A retired Army lieutenant colonel, Corbin is well trained to lead in difficult times. The community he serves also is better equipped than most to once again pick up the pieces in the aftermath of unspeakable gun violence.
“This is a resilient community,” Corbin told Sauk Valley Media shortly after hitting the 100 mark with television interviews with every outlet from CNN to Al-Jazeera. “Only about 1 percent in our nation step up to serve in the military, and we have a whole community of 1 percenters.”
There are briefings every day, where new stories of heroism continue to emerge.
“There is a story that came out Thursday about a chaplain who saved several soldiers by shielding them and breaking windows so they could get out,” Corbin said. “There are some special people here.”
Those stories will be added to those that came from the Nov. 5, 2009, Fort Hood shootings, and the massacre at Luby’s restaurant in which 50 were shot, 23 fatally. The Luby’s tragedy was the deadliest shooting incident in U.S. history until Virginia Tech in 2007, and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.
While still mourning the dead, the focus now must move to the living, Corbin said.
“This is another big kick in the gut,” Corbin said. “But we’ll dust ourselves off and do whatever we can to help the families.”
Corbin is one of many former military people who stayed in Killeen after spending time at one of the world’s biggest bases.
“They choose to live here because they enjoy being in a military community; it’s a very special place to live,” Corbin said.
Corbin’s extensive military travels have not dimmed his memories of the area in which he grew up.
He is one of four sons and two daughters born to Francis Austin and Gertrude Corbin. A brother, Donald, died in a car accident right before leaving for military deployment. He still borrows on that tragedy when trying to come to terms with what his community is again going through.
“Military people deal with death on a much larger scale in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Corbin said. “The nature of how these people died is the most difficult part I think – the sudden, unexpected death of people so young. You expect casualties when you deploy, but you don’t when you’re here at Fort Hood.”
One of Corbin’s sisters is Rock Falls City Administrator Robbin Blackert. She said her older brother has always been an unflappable leader.
“I don’t know if it’s the military background, but he has always been a strong leader,” Blackert said. “He stays calm in times of crisis and just goes into autopilot.”
He is so busy right now, he really hasn’t had time to open up much to family, Blackert said.
“He’s in that mode now where he’s just thinking ‘we’ve got to do whatever it takes to get through this’”, she said. “He wants to make sure the city is doing everything they can to help those most affected.”
Corbin draws from a wide range of training and experiences that followed his early days in Whiteside County.
The family farmed near Lyndon until 1968, when they moved to Prophetstown. In 1965, he graduated from Lyndon High School, which would later consolidate with Prophetstown and Tampico schools.
“Lyndon High had less than 100 people, and I went to a one-room country school for elementary school,” Corbin said. “I used to stop to visit Jean Taylor, the teacher I had at Greene; she was a great lady.”
Greene School, since torn down, was at state Route 2 just east of Lyndon.
He joined the Army Security Agency, where he specialized in military intelligence, learning Spanish and Vietnamese along the way. That would prepare him for military work in the Panama Canal Zone and deployment to the war in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.
“I remember riding in a helicopter in Vietnam, doing low-level reconnaissance with a telephoto lens,” Corbin said. “The pilot told me I would be nauseous and sick every day, and we would be shot at every day. He was right on both accounts.”
After retiring from active duty, he continued to serve in the Army Reserves. Oh, and in his spare time, he became a lawyer and certified public accountant. He has a law practice in Killeen. He was at work in that office the day of the 2009 Fort Hood shootings.
The military man in Corbin believes there is nothing more that can be done to prevent these types of tragedies.
“There is no way to do a better job of security than what they do now,” Corbin said. “There are so many people in and out every day, it’s impossible to search every vehicle. It’s very difficult to secure anything now whether it’s a baseball stadium or a military base.”
Corbin says he has a great appreciation for the area in which he grew up.
“I got my values there – through the school system, family and church,” he said. “That’s something that just doesn’t happen as much as it used to.”
He promised his family he would serve only one term as Killeen mayor. He made good on that vow, and plans to kick back a bit and travel when his term expires next month.
“It’s a shame that in his last month as mayor he’s having to deal with this,” Blackert said. “As calm as he seems, I know it’s just devastating for him and the community. The city and the base are one big family.”