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Fort Hood Shooting: Could the Military Have Prevented It?

Details are emerging about the mass shooting at Fort Hood Wednesday-and what could have been done to stop it.

by Grace Wyler
Apr 4 2014, 4:56pm

An honor detail carries the remains of Sergeant Amy Kreguer, one of the 13 people killed in the November 5, 2009 shooting at Fort Hood. Photo by U.S. Army photographer John Byerly.

Details are slowly starting to trickle out about what went down Wednesday afternoon at Fort Hood, where a 34-year-old soldier went on a shooting rampage that killed four people and injured 16 others. We know that the shooter, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, was an “experienced soldier” and military truck driver who served for four months in Iraq and was one of the last troops to come home in 2011. We know that he was being treated for depression and other mental health issues, and had been evaluated for PTSD. But military officials said Thursday that they still don’t know what motivated Lopez to smuggle a .45-caliber automatic pistol onto a US base and start shooting at troops before turning the gun on himself.

It’s a horrifying and senseless tragedy, made all the more horrifying and senseless by the fact that we have been here before. Wednesday’s incident was the third major gun attack on a domestic military installation in less than five years, following the deadly shooting spree in September that killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC. The latest attack bears a number of sad resemblances to the 2009 massacre at the same base, in which Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan walked into a soldier processing center and opened fire on a group of troops preparing to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. That attack, which left 13 dead and more than 32 others wounded, remains the deadliest mass shooting ever to take place on a military base in the US.

“We are heartbroken something like this could happen again,” President Obama told reporters after hearing news of the shooting Wednesday night. “Obviously that sense of safety has been broken once again. We need to find out exactly what happened." Speaking to reporters in Hawaii, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel similarly struggled to explain how another shooting could have happened at Fort Hood. “When we have these kinds of tragedies on our bases, something’s not working,” he said. “We will continue to address the issue. Any time you lose your people to these kinds of tragedies, it’s an issue, it’s a problem.”

At this point, it is not clear what, if anything, the military could have done to stop Wednesday's shooting. In the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Hood attack, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered sweeping review of security procedures at military facilities, which recommended a series of policy changes to help commanders identify potential "insider threats," focusing largely on individuals who had been radicalized and could pose a terrorist threat. Just two weeks ago, Hagel announced another set of new security measures in response to the Navy Yard shooting, including more rigorous screening of personnel working on military bases. But it is not clear yet whether any of these measures should have been able to stop Lopez, an active service man with a clean military record. Taken together, the three shootings prove that there probably is no silver bullet solution that will stop unhinged people from shooting up a military base—or a movie theater, or a shopping mall, or a school.

Already, theories have started to emerge about what may have caused the latest tragedy at Fort Hood, and what might have been done to stop it. Just hours after the attack, Texas Republican Congressman Michael McCaul was on Fox News warning that the incidents at Fort Hood—including the 2011 arrest of a 22-year-old Army private charged with trying to detonate an explosive device at a nearby restaurant—could be evidence that the base had become a target for “jihadists,” and that it was another reminder that soldiers should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. “Al Qaeda and terrorists and jihadists are targeting our military bases,” McCaul told Megyn Kelly. “That is a fact. […] The problem here, and with Fort Hood, the prior Nidal Hasan case, was that they couldn’t defend themselves because they were not allowed to carry weapons.” By Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had taken the other side, saying that the attack proved the need for stricter gun control. On the crazier side of the spectrum, the conspiracy theory mill wasted no time churning out stories of false flag attacks and psychiatric brainwashing.

Military officials have indicated that mental health was a factor in Wednesday’s shooting, although it is not clear yet to what extent it played a role. According to officials, Lopez had seen a psychiatrist as recently as last month, and was prescribed a cocktail of medications to treat depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. He had also self-reported a traumatic head injury after returning from Iraq in 2011, although officials said that he never saw combat and that there was no record he had ever suffered a combat-related injury. But Army Secretary John McHugh told a Senate committee Thursday Lopez had a clean record and had shown no "sign of any likely violence either to himself or others.”

The fact that Lopez had sought out psychiatric help indicates that he knew something was wrong. But military mental health experts said that it wouldn’t be surprising if Lopez fell through the cracks of the military’s outdated and underfunded mental health system, which is struggling to deal with an influx of soldiers returning from the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the past two years, data has shown that service members are suffering sky-high rates of depression and PTSD. A report published last month in JAMA Psychiatry found that almost 25 percent of nearly 5,500 active-duty, non-deployed Army soldiers surveyed tested positive for a mental disorder of some kind. The studies, which were the most expansive ever conducted on active-duty military personnel, found that rate of major depression is five times as high among soldiers as civilians; intermittent explosive disorder, which results in episodes of extreme anger, is six times as high; and post-traumatic stress disorder was nearly 15 times higher than among civilians. Suicide rates have also spiked in the military, with 349 service members killing themselves in 2012, up from 301 in 2011, according to Pentagon data obtained by the AP. At Fort Hood, the largest active-duty base in the US, the number of soldiers who committed suicide jumped to 19 in 2012, up from ten the year before.

A report released earlier this year by the Institute of Medicine found that the military has been woefully unequipped to handle this influx of mentally vulnerable soldiers. The study, commissioned by the Pentagon, found that the military relies heavily on unproven mental health screening and treatment methods, and that bureaucratic dysfunction makes it difficult for different agencies to effectively communicate with one another.

“The struggle is that this is a very complex and difficult issue,” said Craig Bryan, the executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies. “The reason why we have not made better inroads is because people have been looking at this…as if it's one singular unitary universal problem that affects all individuals equally.” In reality, he explained, there are multiple profiles for service members who suffer from mental health disorders, many of which contradict long-held perceptions about who is likely to be at risk.

“We’re now learning that we're going to have to be a little more customized based on the unique needs of these subgroups,” Bryan added. “What's going on is not necessarily combat related. Suicide is related to a number of life stressors—relationship problems, financial struggles. These are just problems of life—there is nothing that's unique to the military. Oftentimes what we see are these more proximal triggers for suicidal crises.”

Of course, the problems surrounding Wednesday's shooting aren’t limited to the military. A report released by the FBI in January on so-called “active shooter” incidents—attacks where a gunman tries to kill multiple people in a confined area— found a steady increase in attacks between 2000 and 2012, as well as an increase in the number of people killed and wounded in the shootings.

“This is a growing problem across the United States, and military bases certainly aren’t immune to the threat,” Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a former official at the National Counterterrorism Center, told me. “When someone decides to become an active shooter, it's almost impossible to stop it…It seems like in this case, it was almost impossible to determine that this was going to happen.”

“Determining the root causes for what makes someone an active shooter is very difficult,” Nelson added. “But at the end of the day, you have an individual who is running around a military base killing people. It's very hard to minimize the damage that someone can do with a loaded gun.”