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The blame game: PTSD and the 2014 Fort Hood shootings

The April 2, 2014, shootings at Fort Hood, a well-known military post just outside Killeen, Texas, garnered national attention due in part to its infamy as the second Fort Hood rampage, not the first. Three soldiers were killed and sixteen were wounded before the gunman, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, turned his gun on himself. And although the first ripples felt by the attack included whispers of possible terrorism – similar to that of 2009’s Fort Hood shooting – those whispers quickly changed to the possibility of combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Army officials made their skepticism clear, stating that Lopez only spent four months in Iraq and they were unaware of his having experienced any of the expected PTSD-inducing events. The shooter had been undergoing mental health counseling on post and is said to have been evaluated for PTSD. But since Lopez did not suffer any wounds or trauma while in Iraq, there is understandable doubt in the military community that his actions had anything to do with PTSD. There is also a certain risk involved with invoking the acronym, thanks to the stigma that has been building around it for years.

"The Abandoned Soldier" a sculpture meant to honor veterans.
Photo by: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

One figure well-known in military circles who is expressing concern about using the label for the shooter is Sergeant Dakota Meyer, 2011 Medal of Honor (MOH) recipient. Sgt. Meyer stated to the media that naming PTSD as the reason for Lopez’s actions puts “a label on all veterans that veterans are psychotic or mentally unstable and they’re going to shoot up places. And they’re not.” Sgt. Meyer is currently the youngest living MOH recipient and is a PTSD survivor. His courageous actions in 2009 during the Battle of Ganjgal in Afghanistan, where he was credited with saving thirty-six soldiers, resulted in his being wounded and taking copious enemy fire. He believes there was some other mitigating factor in the 2014 Fort Hood shooting. The young Marine understands the physical and mental effects of trauma better than civilians do, and his concern that blaming PTSD for Lopez’s actions will trigger unfounded fear in the general public is not only understandable but being proven as events unfold.

Sadly, the fear Sgt. Meyer warns of is precisely what seems to be sweeping many in the nation. Lack of understanding of the realities of PTSD is resulting in a near-breathless state of anticipation for some when they find out a man or woman is a veteran. Being a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan seems to increase the worry the uninformed feel. But that is not the reality of PTSD. In fact, studies have actually shown that cases like Lopez’s have little to nothing to do with the disorder. A predisposition to rage exists in a high percentage of those who commit violent acts after a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis. It’s a bit like the old question, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

The psychologist’s gold standard of diagnostics, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, Revised (DSM-IV-R), lists the leading symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as flashbacks, hyperarousal, withdrawal, numbing, and isolation. Violence is not among them. Finding a legitimate study showing a conclusive link between PTSD and violence is nearly impossible. That is not to say that anger, especially impulsive anger (IA), is not an issue. There are many factors involved, and PTSD can lead to substance abuse, typically alcoholism, which can lead to lowered inhibitions and an increase in IA. But there is also a difference between IA and premeditated violence. And in cases such as that of Spc. Ivan Lopez, premeditation is absolutely a factor.

Perhaps one of the saddest things about these shootings is the way our memories tend to work. Rather than remembering those lost, we recall the perpetrators. Who doesn’t know the names of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Adam Lanza, or James Eagan Holmes? Did any of them have PTSD, or did they simply have a pre-existing tendency towards violence? Anyone can be pushed into killing out of desperation and self-defense of their loved ones, but it takes a special kind of twisted mind to walk into a school, a movie theater, or, yes, a stateside military post, and kill people just because they can. That suggests an emotional disturbance far beyond that of the average PTSD-sufferer. And it is time for the American public to understand that the stigma surrounding veterans with PTSD is not only undeserved but inaccurate. A staggering number of veterans with PTSD are more likely to internalize their suffering and hurt themselves than they are to lash out externally. That likelihood epitomizes the mindset of the majority of our American heroes and is found in Sgt. Meyer’s Marine Corps code: God, country, Corps…then family, and, finally, self. For a soldier, thoughts of self come last, and that is what being a member of the military is about. It is about protecting others, even at the risk of loss of self, and that is a lifestyle shooters like Ivan Lopez fail to comprehend.

“We send our soldiers to war for our freedom and then lock them up when they are broken and of no use to us anymore.” (PTSD: A Soldier’s Perspective, 2009)

Author’s Note: There is never any reason to be ashamed of a PTSD diagnosis. It is the shame of others for failing to understand, and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress should be able to receive treatment free of judgment or fear of losing their firearms. As a contrast to Lopez, we have Sgt. Timothy Owens, an Iraq war veteran with his Combat Action badge (as well as more than a dozen other medals and awards) who sacrificed himself to save his brother soldiers. Sgt. Owens wedged himself against a door that could not be locked to hold it closed against the shooter. During the ensuing one-sided firefight – one coward firing while the hero stood, unarmed, unflinching, and immovable – Sgt. Owens was shot to death right where he stood. Better to die on your feet, than live on your knees. We owe our active duty military members and veterans everything, and in return they are all too frequently tossed aside by the system. The system needs to change, not tomorrow, not next month, not next year: now.

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Remembering the 2014 Fort Hood Soldiers Murdered by Ivan Lopez:

Sergeant First Class Daniel Michael Ferguson, 39YO: Ferguson was born in Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and became a transportation supervisor with the 49th Movement Control Battalion, 13th ESC, at Fort Hood. He was a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. His family requested donations be made in his name to Ferguson was murdered protecting a room full of soldiers. He wedged his body against a lockless door in order to keep the shooter out, and was shot to death. His heroic actions saved the soldiers in that room.

Staff Sergeant Carlos A. Lazaney-Rodriguez, 38YO: Lazaney-Rodriguez served the Army for nearly twenty years and was about to leave the service and move to Tampa, according to his brother. Their parents had recently moved to Tampa from Puerto Rico, so Lazaney-Rodriguez had changed his moving plans from Puerto Rico to Tampa out of a desire to be close to his family. He was an NCO who served in Kuwait and Iraq and had an impressively long list of medals to his name, including four commendations and six for good conduct.

Sergeant Timothy Owens, 37YO: Owens had his black belt in tae kwon do and joined the Army in 2004. He was a native of Illinois. He had just signed up for another six years in, and his Kyo Bum Nim told press he believed Owens would have been a career military man. Owens’ platoon leader remembers him as a tireless worker and said many were “in awe of his devotion to duty.”

Remembering the 2009 Fort Hood Soldiers Murdered by Nadil Hasan

Michael Grant Cahill, 62YO: Cahill was a physician’s assistant and had suffered a heart attack just two weeks before being murdered back on post. Cahill was a Spokane, WA, native. His children describe him as a gregarious man with a voracious reading appetite.

Major L. Eduardo Caraveo, 52YO: Caraveo earned his doctorate in psychology in the United States after legally immigrating here from Mexico as a teenager. He was an Arizona native and was at Fort Hood preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.

Staff Sergeant Justin M. DeCrow, 32YO: Decrow left behind a thirteen-year-old daughter, Kylah. His wife said the sergeant was “well loved” by everyone, and was waiting to be reunited with him at Fort Gordon in Georgia. DeCrow was at Fort Hood helping train soldiers how to help new veterans.
Captain John P. Gaffaney, 56YO: Gaffaney was a psychiatric nurse and spent two decades working for San Diego County in California before heading to Fort Hood the day to be deployed to Iraq. He was on post for one day before being murdered. Gaffaney was a Navy veteran and rejoined through the Army after 9-11. Close friend Stephanie Powell describes him as an “honorable man” and said he just wanted to help the boys in the sandbox.

Specialist Frederick Greene, 29YO: Greene was from Mountain City, Tennessee. The superintendent of his home church, Baker’s Gap Baptist, said “he was one of the finest boys you ever saw.” Greene was part of 16 Signal Company at Fort Hood.

Specialist Jason Dean Hunt, 22YO: Hunt went right into the Army after graduating from high school and was a newlywed of just two months at the time of his murder. He’d had one tour in Iraq and was previously stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia. His mother, who was alerted of his death by the appearance of two soldiers at her front door, said he was a “very quiet boy.”

Sergeant Amy Kruger, 29YO: Krueger enlisted after 9-11 and told her mother she was doing after bin Laden. When her mother told her she could not do that alone, she told her mother: “Watch me.” Krueger’s high school principal says she was incredibly proud to serve her country.

Private First Class Aaron Thomas Nemelka, 19YO: Nemelka joined the Army instead of going on mission with the Latter Day Saints, according to his uncle. His uncle described him as a “sweetheart,” and added that he admired his nephew’s independent mindset. Nemelka was being sent to Afghanistan in January 2010.

Private First Class Michael Pearson, 22YO: Pearson, a Chicago native, felt he was in a rut, so he joined the Army, according to his mother. She added that he wanted to serve his country. According to Pearson’s parent’s next-door neighbor, the family “lost their gem” when he was murdered.

Captain Russell Seager, 51YO: Seager was a psychologist who had worked extensively with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was a native of Racine, Wisconsin, and had only recently joined the Army out of his desire to more actively help soldiers. He was scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan in December.

Private Francheska Velez, 21YO: Velez was set to go home, having just returned from a tour in Iraq. Friends described her as a fun, happy person, and her family said she was happy and sweet. Velez was three months pregnant when she was murdered.

Lieutenant Colonel Juanita Warman, 55YO: Warman’s father was career military, and her sister described her as loving the Army and her family “very much.” Warman was a Maryland native and a physician’s assistant who volunteered for Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, a reintegration program for soldiers returning from deployment. Warman had two daughters and six grandchildren.

Private First Class Kham Xiong, 23YO: Xiong was a father of three who was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. His father, who was a Laos native, fought against the Viet Cong with the CIA during Vietnam, as did his grandfather. His brother is a Marine who was in Afghanistan at the time of Xiong’s murder. He had just moved to Texas from Minnesota with his family. After his murder, his father told press “I don’t think he’s dead. I don’t think he’s dead.”

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