Another day, another mass shooting in America. Sadly, it was the second deadly shooting to occur at Ft. Hood, Texas, in less than five years.
On November 5, 2009, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire in an area where troops were processing for deployment to the Middle East. Hasan, a psychiatrist, killed thirteen and wounded thirty-two. He is currently confined at the military stockade at Ft. Leavenworth awaiting execution.
Yesterday, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez brought a .45 caliber handgun onto base and went on a killing spree in two administrative buildings as well as shooting from his automobile. Lopez managed to kill three and wound sixteen before taking his own life with a bullet to the head.
Both men, Hasan and Lopez, purchased their weapons at the same gun store in Killeen, Texas.
War causes mental health issues, always has and always will. America has been at war in the Middle East for over a dozen years - with no end in sight. News reports last summer stated that active duty members of the U.S. military were taking their own lives at a rate of one per day. The suicide rate for veterans has been running over twenty a day.
Those are astounding figures. Young people, often people without means or of limited opportunities, join the military to get away from home, earn money to go to college, learn a skill, see the world, or out of a sense of patriotism - only to find that the experience is far more brutal or terrifying or lonely than the rosy picture presented by their recruiter. When the real world crushes the dream, not everyone has the inner-strength, or resilience, to handle it.
To its credit, the military has thrown a lot of money into mental health programs over the past few years. Mental health counselors, and here I am speaking from personal experience, help young people work through the emotional stuff and stresses that they brought home from combat zones. They address substance abuse and alcohol issues that affect families on multiple levels. Counselors explain to spouses why their once docile mates are now quick to anger, or reclusive, or emotionally withdrawn, or continually tearful - or wake up in the middle of the night yelling and striking out with their fists. They work with the children of veterans to help them understand why daddy, or mommy, is different, and to develop ways of coping with their parents' behaviors.
Military mental health counselors address the issues that war generates, and they also dedicate a great deal of time in helping young men and women with the other things that go beyond the military and affect most young people - things like relationship and financial issues. All twenty-somethings have a broad range of things to learn and overcome as they become established as adults, but add military life and the stresses of combat to that mixture, and the result is an emotional load that some cannot lift or bear.
The military services are beginning to come to terms with the fact that their troops are more than just cogs in the military machine. They have lives, and loves, and concerns that reach beyond the military and out into families and communities. As the stresses pile on, sometimes extra help is needed.
One service, however, has shown less eagerness to promote mental health programs than its sister services. That laggard is the U.S. Army. The Army addresses the issue at its highest levels, but at the battalion and company levels, where the rubber hits the road, taking advantage of mental health services is often translated as shirking duty, feigning illness, or being weak.
A report commissioned by the Army and released late last year looked at the Army's suicide problem from a different perspective than had been used in the past. Traditionally, when reviewing suicides, the investigators had focused on the victim and tried to determine his deficiencies and problems. With the new report, they studied the victim's work environment and talked to co-workers about issues at the job site. What they found was surprising to the Army, but not to some of us who have worked directly with soldiers seeking mental health treatment.
The findings of the new report identified a fairly prevalent factor in many of the suicides - something the report referred to as "toxic leadership." One of the researchers, an anthropologist named Dave Matsuda, used this example when discussing the report's findings with the press:
"Oftentimes platoon leaders will take turns seeing who can smoke this guy the worst. Seeing who can dream up the worst torture, seeing who can dream up the worst duties, seeing who can make this guy's life the most miserable."
Layer on top of that company commanders and battalion commanders who have a twisted view of leadership and feel the stick is far more productive than the carrot, and a the result is entire units controlled and "motivated" through coercion and fear. Then look at the twenty-year-old suffering from PTSD, loneliness, a cheating spouse, insurmountable bills, and . . . well you get the idea.
Sometimes it becomes easier to check out than it is to check in - and there even times when the broken troop will decide to take others out as well.
Good mental health services can make a world of difference - but there are also going to have to be some drastic changes in military culture. Until that happens, these awful headlines will continue to haunt us.