Rethinking Mental Health In The Armed Forces

For the third time since 2009, the U.S. has witnessed yet another horrific shooting at a military base. Among an unfortunate number of other shootings nationwide, this is the second occurrence on the Fort Hood grounds. Army Specialist Ivan Lopez served in Iraq for four months in 2011, and just days ago, he was responsible for the murder of three fellow soldiers and the injury of several others. The media is swarming with reports addressing the unfortunately familiar, yet sensitive, topic of gun control in the U.S. At the same time, many target and blame the influence Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may have had in Lopez’s rampage, and, therefore, they simultaneously question the role PTSD plays in the lives of other war veterans.

On a U.S. military base, it seems quite unrealistic to create an environment in which those in the armed services do not carry weapons. Many believe that there have been poor security measures taken at Fort Hood, yet having extremely thorough spot checks-requiring people to walk through metal detectors or having every vehicle searched-would create congestion in a place where thousands of individuals commute. Since the last shooting at Fort Hood in 2009, when Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan reacted poorly to the news of being deployed to Afghanistan and ultimately killed 13 people, Fort Hood has made a conscious effort to set higher restrictions on possessions of weapons on the grounds and also to identify those most troubled due to their time in service. Reports show that the military base requires all soldiers to register any weapons in their possession to their commanders, with such weapons stored in the arms room, according to The Washington Post.

While Lopez killed himself shortly after his rampage, like many other shootings before-such as the Newtown, Conn. tragedy-Lopez’s motives remain unknown. In fact, it seems unlikely that we will ever be able to understand why accurately. The surge of shootings in the U.S. over the past few years is both tragic and inexplicable. What is it that differentiates the U.S. from the other countries? Why is it that there are again and again such horrific rampages? As a nation, we have ultimately grown fixated on the topic of firearms and how to better control the use of guns. At the same time, is it not obvious that the country with the most guns per capita will inevitably have the most tragedies inflicted by guns? According to a report in The New York Times, the U.S.’ murder rate is “roughly 15 times that of other wealthy countries.” Yet, for the country with the most firearms in circulation-approximately 300 million civilian firearms, or one for every adult-it is questionable that our gun laws are not stricter. It seems that, though we have experienced countless incidents and homicides that have involved firearms, unlike other countries, we do not respond by imposing stricter laws to prevent such rampages from occurring again. In 1996 in the UK, a school shooting led to the death of 16 children in Scotland, spurring some of the toughest anti-gun statutes across the world. Similarly, a massacre in Australia in 1996 left 35 people dead, leading to stricter gun regulations. And the U.S.? Still, we wait.

Steering away from the topic of gun control, I question what prompted yet another gun massacre. Many have sought to delve into Lopez’s personal medical history, seeking to unearth some answer explaining the cause of the incident. While Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the commanding general at the post, has reported that he does not believe Lopez’s “underlying medical conditions … are the direct precipitating factor,” Lopez’s own father has expressed a different opinion, claiming that his son “could not have been in his right mind.” Although one can question whether Lopez’s father is making such claims to create a less negative view of Lopez, it is hard not to believe that one’s time spent in war could not have caused any damage. Although Lopez’s records reveal that he had no injury or “direct involvement in combat” while in Iraq, it has been publicized that Lopez self-reported to be suffering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Yet, Secretary of the Army John McHugh reported that, because Lopez was said not to have been involved in any combat, there had been no investigation into the possibility of Lopez suffering from traumatic brain injury.

When our own soldiers return home from wars abroad, what is the care given to them, I ask. Such questions cause me to hearken back to Dana Priest and Anna Hull’s report on the Walter Reed Hospital and the horrendous lack of care provided to those who had recently returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is it that we do not know? Studies have shown that, since 2008, more U.S. soldiers have committed suicide than those who have died while in combat, according to The Guardian. Last year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued the startling figure that 22 veterans killed themselves every day. Why aren’t our own veterans being better taken care of? The largest dilemma seems to be the high demand for soldiers created by fighting two wars simultaneously, ultimately lengthening the soldiers’ time spent abroad.

Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Meyer, however, recently told Fox News that it is not fair to blame PTSD for Lopez’s actions-rather, Meyer claims Lopez bears traits that better resemble psychosis, not PTSD. Meyer himself underwent the tumultuous battle against PTSD, and he declared that, by blaming PTSD for Lopez’s rampage, we are creating a stigma for others who suffer from the disorder and will make them think they, too, are a danger to those around them. It is undeniable, however, that the treatment of our soldiers needs to be bettered. At the same time, our military and veterans’ health care systems are overwhelmed by the all-too-familiar struggle of mental disorders exacerbated by more than 12 years of war.

One thing is certain-we must change the way in which we treat those who fight on behalf of our nation, providing them better treatment to transition back into society in a healthy manner. They cannot be left to fend for their own, and we must better honor their time spent abroad. Since Sept. 11, our nation has consistently feared the rise of terrorism and yet, we seem to ignore those that perilously roam our homeland terrors.

Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.