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Fort Hood raises red flags about military recruitment

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Speaking today at a Fort Hood memorial service for April 2 massacre by former 34-year-old Army Spc. Ivan Lopez killing four soldiers including himself, President Barack Obama talked of unspeakable grief. Still mourning the Nov. 5, 2009 terrorist act by 39-year-old former Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan that killed 13 injuring scores more, the April 2 massacre raised disturbing questions about combat stress and fitness for duty. Today’s voluntary military doesn’t yet screen for psychological problems, either past or present: A deadly factor with military stress. “There were members of a generation that has borne the burden of our security for more than a decade of war,” said Obama, attributing, to a large extent, the latest Fort Hood mishap to “battle fatigue,” known today as Post-Traumaatic Stress Disorder. Complicating the picture are soldiers preexisting mental conditions.

Without rigorous psychological screenings done in practically every local, state and federal law enforcement agency in the country, the military doesn’t screen for mental illness, other than taking routine histories where soldiers seeking entrance simply don’t mark the right boxes. While it’s true that combat conditions produce higher levels of stresss, it’s also true that many soldiers, no matter what the stress, don’t come down with post-traumatic stress disorder. Fort Hood officials admitted that Lopez was treated for depression, anxiety and insomnia, all features of post-traumatic stress disorder. Reluctant to say whether or not Lopez suffered from post-traumatic stress before he went ballistic, Fort Hood officials seem more concerned about liability than dealing mental illness in Army recruits. Whether or not it’s post-traumatic stress disorder or some other diagnosis is of little consequence.

President Obama raised some important distinctions about stress in the military under war and peacetime conditions. Fort Hood’s commanding officer Lt. Gen. Mark Miley stated April 2 that Lopez did not see combat duty on a tour in Iraq in 2011. Whether he saw combat or not, it’s still possible that Lopez suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or some other diagnosis that precipitated his mass murder. Army Secretary John McHugh confirmed that Lopez was treated on the base for depression, anxiety and insomnia. His army psychiatrist, who apparently missed Lopez’s violent propensities, was not publicly interviewed to determine Lopez’s medications, though Ambien was mentioned for his sleep problems. Revelations about Lopez getting into an argument with other soldiers before he went ballistic or an apparent denial of extended leave does not account for his violence.

Looking or a single motive for violent crime rarely tells the whole story of the murky mental state needed to drive someone to commit mayhem and mass murder. No military recruiter can play shrink before signing recruits up that come with varying degrees of baggage leading to stress vulnerability. Histories of child abuse or neglect, including bad parenting, children raised in alternative arrangements like Foster care, histories of drug or alcohol abuse, violence, suicide, academic problems, criminal activity, genetic abnormalities, psychiatric problems, personality disorders, unstable relationships, domestic abuse, biochemical imbalances, financial problems, relationship break-ups, parental or sibling deaths, or any other stress can all contribute to stress vulnerability which could morph into violent behavior. Military recruiters should consider psychological screenings in addition to medical exams.

Solving the complex task of predicting and controlling violent behavior is no easy feat for mental health professionals in the best of circumstances. When you expose recruits to the stresses of military life, with or without combat duty, an ordinarily adjusted—or symptom free—individual can be pushed over the edge or develop, like Lopez, anxiety, depression and insomnia. Whatever happened to Lopez, it’s clear he snapped for the reasons mentioned above, not simply because of an argument or denial of a leave request. Saying that Lopez’s mental condition was not a “direct participating factor” ignores the multifaceted nature of violent behavior. Since the FBI can’t find any terrorist participation, like in Hasan’s case, an argument or denial of leave request doesn’t account for Lopez violence. His mental condition is precisely the “direct participating factor,” not an external event.

When Obama speaks of “doing more” for our fellow citizens, he’s referring to having mental health equally accessible as medical services. “We must honor these men by doing more to care for our fellow Americans living with mental illness, civilian and military,” Obama told a grieving audience at Fort Hood. Without putting voluntary military recruiting at risk, the military can do a better job of screening recruits for mental illness and stress vulnerability before more suicides and homicides. Whatever the legal ramifications of diagnosing Lopez with post-traumatic stress disorder, the military needs to own its lack of systematic psychological screening before signing up recruits for military duty. While suicide rates have gotten military and civilian attention, it’s high time to study how violence also plagues the military. Only more study can help prevent future episodes.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.

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