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Violence strikes again at Fort Hood

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Google ImagesIvan Lopez

When 39-year-old army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan massacred 13 soldiers at a Fort Hood deployment center Nov. 5, 2009, it took weeks before the FBI figured out that screaming “Allahu Akbar” meant something. Even today’s reporting Hasan’s rampage fails to acknowledge the former army psychiatrist’s email relationship with the late Yemen-based-U.S.-born al-Qaida terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. Still classified as workplace violence, some elements in the U.S. law enforcement and intel community deny that Hasan was a programmed al-Qaida assassin. Following the Hasan’s mass murder, Fort Hood authorities were supposed to take steps to prevent future incidents. Yesterday’s Fort Hood attack by 34-year-old Puerto Rican Army Spc. Ivan Lopez killing four, including the gunman with a self-inflicted wound, raise urgent questions about the failure to predict and control violent behavior.

Examining the record of Hasan, it’s clear that single motives don’t tell the whole story behind how ordinarily educated and rational folks commit acts of mass murder, including politically motivated acts like homicidal-suicidal terrorists detonating belts containing C-4 explosives with various kinds of shrapnel. Unlike the suicide bomber that struck Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry April 2 killing six and injuring scores more, Lopez bought a Smith & Wesson 45-caliber semiautomatic from a local gun dealer and opened fire in at least two different locations at Fort Hood before confronted by base security in parking lot, killing himself with a single shot to the temple. Like the Afghan suicide bomber, there’s no one left to interrogate, prosecute and seek justice from someone perpetrating such a horrific act. Investigators are left scrambling to answer the imponderable: Why?

Piecing together some background on Lopez, it didn’t take long to figure out he was treated for mental illness, most likely depression, anxiety and insomnia. Fort Hood Commander three- star Lt. Gen. Mark Miley said Lopez sought “help for depression, anxiety and other problems” and was under evaluation for post-traumatic stress disorder {PTSD], the fashionable diagnosis for a constellation of erratic behaviors once called “battle fatigue,” “war neurosis” or “combat stress.” Some psychiatrist or counselor at Fort Hood has a record on Lopez, documenting his history, diagnosis and recommended treatment. Legitimate questions arise why his counselor didn’t assess Lopez’s violent propensities that caused three deaths and 16 injuries. Whatever his problems from military service or pre-existing conditions, Fort Hood now deals with the fallout of another violent episode.

Army Secretary Gen. John McHugh said Lopez saw a psychiatrist last month and showed “no signs of any likely violence either to himself or others,” standard language from mental health workers’ in their notes. Whatever the “psychiatrist” or counselor didn’t see in Lopez tells the real story of what’s wrong with the system: That predicting and managing violent behavior isn’t easy. Whoever evaluated Lopez and prescribed him Ambien, a commonly prescribed sleep medication, needs to be questioned thoroughly on how they missed his instability. When Gen. Miley suggests that Lopez was under evaluation for PTSD, it’s entirely possible his insomnia was related to his mental illness. McHugh indicated that Lopez did a four-month tour in Iraq in 2011 but saw no combat. Rumors about a traumatic brain injury [TBI] , like a concussion, was not on Lopez’s military medical record.

McHugh said Lopez “had a clear record in terms of his behavior,” referring to his past service but certainly not related to his current psychiatric record at Ford Hood where he was treated according to Gen. Miley for “depression, anxiety and other problems,” all consistent with PTSD. Revealing that Lopez didn’t do a “combat tour” or that he didn’t sustain a TBI in the line of duty doesn’t rule out that he suffered from PTSD or any other mental illness, including the kind of paranoia t that drove Hewlett-Packard contractor 34-year-old Aaron Alexis to massacre 12 sailors Sept. 16, 2013 at Washington D.C.’s Navy Yard. Army Secretary McHugh and Fort Hood Commander Miley need to get on the same page. Whether admitted to or not, Lopez suffered from mental illness when he purchased his Smith & Wesson at a local Texas gun dealer, proving that mentally ill folks have no problem buying firearms.

Yesterday’s latest Fort Hood massacre proves there’s much work to be done to predict and manage violent behavior. Speaking in Chicago, President Barack Obama expressed his condolences to the victims’ families. “We don’t yet know what happened tonight but obviously that sense of safety has been broken again,” referring to Lopez’s motives and past violence at Fort Hood. Following the Sept. 16, 2013 Navy Yard massacre, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Pentagon to review security at U.S. defense installations. “Obviously when we have these kinds of tragedies on our bases, something’s not working,” said Hagel, attesting to how much work is needed to prevent future episodes. Military recruiters and Human Resources personnel must do a better job of screening for mental illness. Whatever stresses go with the job, there’s more that can be done to prevent violence.

About the Author

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