The low-slung, nondescript building with a well-tended lawn doesn't look like a combat zone - not now anyway.

But as I was being driven past the Soldiers and Family Service Center at Fort Hood, just outside Killeen, Texas, I couldn't help but think of it as a battleground.

Three weeks earlier, it was where 12 soldiers and a civilian were killed in a storm of bullets allegedly fired by a Muslim U.S. Army officer who apparently felt violence was the best way to protest our nation's military presence in Islamic Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was scheduled to be deployed.

I was in town to celebrate Thanksgiving with family members. Among the blessings we counted while stuffing ourselves with turkey, dressing, and sweet-potato casserole was that our Army man wasn't near the gunfire.

Like thousands of others at the base that day, he was alerted to stay put, make sure his own station was secure, and await orders. TV showed him what had occurred only a short distance from his own building. Thirteen dead, dozens wounded, an Army officer suspected - it was hard to believe.

Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan was himself shot by civilian police responding to the emergency. That's one irony about military bases today; security at many is routinely handled by civilians. MPs may not be guarding the gates. Call it a legacy of George W. Bush's pining for privatization.

Anyway, Nidal, an Army psychiatrist, remains hospitalized hours away from Fort Hood in San Antonio. Said to be paralyzed, Hasan has issued no statements, either directly or through his appointed attorney. But you can tell a lot about his state of mind by his reported actions before the shootings.

In fact, since military and other intelligence officials already knew that Hasan had strong misgivings about being in an Army that was fighting fellow Muslims, one wonders why they didn't take action earlier. Investigators are looking into what went wrong.

Hasan was supposed to deploy to Afghanistan on Nov. 28 with other mental-health professionals. They are sorely needed in an Army that expects last year's total of 140 confirmed suicides to be exceeded this year. It will be the fifth year in a row the suicide numbers have risen.

The divorce rate has also risen slightly, with military marriages failing at a rate of 3.6 percent compared with 3.4 percent a year ago. The rate was 2.6 percent in 2001, when the Iraq war began.

Hasan isn't married, although his imam says he was looking for a wife earlier. And if the major contemplated suicide, he apparently preferred to have someone else pull the trigger. His actions got him that, but his wounds weren't fatal.

About four years ago, Hasan became very vocal in his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His views made him a target for pranks apparently by xenophobic soldiers who called him a "camel jockey." Acquaintances said Hasan, described as a quiet man, never sought to retaliate.

But as his time to deploy to Afghanistan drew nearer, Hasan became more and more agitated. The son of Palestinian immigrants started giving his possessions to neighbors in a Killeen apartment complex.

Shortly after 1 p.m. on Nov. 5, Hasan went to one of several service centers at Fort Hood, where soldiers are processed before deployment. Witnesses say he sat quietly at a table, then jumped up, shouted something, and began firing the $1,100 FN Herstal 5.7mm pistol that he had bought a few days earlier.

Today, there are no visible signs of the carnage that occurred. Unlike in the civilian world, where people are quick to leave flowers, flags, stuffed animals, and other bric-a-brac at the site of some tragedy, a military base dare not suggest that any event could cause it to lose focus from its mission.

Thousands of the U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan go through Fort Hood. It's also where they return. While I was there, members of the First Cavalry Division came back from Iraq. With President Obama's new "surge," some from Fort Hood are likely headed to Afghanistan.

On the base, splendid in their uniforms, these men and women provide the perfect photo-op for an exploiter with political aspirations like Sarah Palin, who was at Fort Bragg, N.C., in November and Fort Hood on Friday to sign autographs of her book.

The soldiers' patriotism does not mean they are without dissent, but orders usually restrict its expression. So, when we civilians hear about someone like Hasan, vocal in opposing the wars, wearing the uniform but not liking it, we are taken aback.

We forget that soldiers are people, too, with their own opinions about U.S. policy, even if they express them only among themselves. Like many civilians, some question whether a "war on terror" can be won when a terrorist can be homegrown.

They don't protest to get their point across. They don't shoot up a building to get attention. They do their job, which is to defend this country, on foreign soil or our own, so that those who would peacefully dissent may do so, and so those elected to make decisions for the public can do that.

E-mail editorial page editor Harold Jackson at hjackson@phillynews.com.