Fort Hood’s troubling questions

MOURNERS — Kyle and Emma Gill join with others as they participate in a flag walk in memory of those killed and injured by Iraq war veteran, Ivan Lopez, on April 2 in Killeen, Texas. Lopez killed three and wounded 16 before taking his own life on the Fort Hood Army base. — Credit: JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

The contradiction couldn’t be clearer.

A day after the shooting rampage at Fort Hood — which claimed four lives, including the alleged killer Spc. Ivan Lopez, who shot himself when approached by a military policewoman — the commander at the largest military base in the U.S., Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, told the media, “We have very strong evidence that he had a medical history that indicates an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition. We believe that is the fundamental underlying causal factor here.”

Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., Army Secretary John McHugh was giving Congress a whole different prognosis. He testified that a thorough psychiatric exam just last month hadn’t uncovered a troubled-enough mind in the Puerto Rico-born 34-year-old for him to be removed from active duty.

“As of this morning, we had no indication on the record of that examination that there was any sign of likely violence, either to himself or to others, no suicidal ideation,” McHugh told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a regularly scheduled hearing on budget issues.

The Army Secretary, however, did report that Lopez was “undergoing a variety of treatment and diagnoses for mental health conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to some sleep disturbance.” He also noted the soldier — a truck driver deployed at the end of the Iraq War for four months, but who was never actually in combat — had been prescribed a “number of drugs” and was being evaluated for PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

 

‘Synchronicity’ at LMU

Mark Mitchell’s first reaction when he learned about Fort Hood’s shooting was personal. His nephew had recently processed through the sprawling military base on his way to serving in Afghanistan. How would this affect him? Did he know Spc. Ivan Lopez? What were the circumstances that led to the rampage?

Then “synchronicity” came to mind for the adjunct professor at Loyola Marymount University, who is a marriage and family therapist with a private practice that includes veterans and their families. And the public forum he was organizing and moderating that evening, “Healing Moral Injury and PTSD: Ministry to Veterans, their Families and Communities,” was about as timely as could be.

The story was still breaking, on daily newspaper front pages and network and cable news programs, when Mitchell was interviewed by The Tidings the day after the shooting. By then, much had been learned about the alleged killer, an experienced soldier.

A former National Guardsman in Puerto Rico, Lopez joined the U.S. Army as an active duty infantryman. He was deployed twice, first in the Sinai Peninsula and for four months in Iraq during the wind-down of the war there in 2011, though news accounts emphasized that the 34-year-old, remarried father of four children never actually saw combat.

Lopez had only been at Fort Hood since February, after transferring from Fort Bliss, also in Texas. At the time of the shooting, he was a vehicle operator in the 49th Movement Control Battalion.

Details of the shooting, and the motive, are still under investigation, but Army officials found no evidence that Lopez was connected to any terrorist group or that he had targeted his victims. His only weapon was a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol purchased at a nearby gun store called “Guns Galore.”

Mitchell, of course, doesn’t know what Ivan Lopez was thinking at he drove to three buildings, firing the handgun as he went. But after treating veterans the last five years for PTSD and moral injury, he’s willing to take an educated guess: “flooding.”

 “You get overwhelmed with negative thoughts and feelings, and you get cortisone and adrenaline, too,” the 61-year-old therapist said. “You think wacky stuff. When you get upset, it’s harder for men to calm down more frequently than women. Women get soothed by other social interactions. Men usually go isolate and try to figure things out to soothe themselves.

“My only hypothesis is this guy was building a case for [the shooting] in his head and was buying what he was building in his head. And he didn’t have the desire or the tools to self-soothe himself. It’s a very common problem in the military. When your sympathetic nervous system is being trained for a warrior culture, soothing isn’t usually going to be the top priority. The culture encourages action.

“My guess is people don’t do this unless they feel trapped,” he explained. “They either feel trapped, or they want a sense of justice, they have a strong sense of fairness. Those are the things that frequently, you know, are the vibes that are motivating them.”

 

Big beef with Army

In fact, news reports days after the shooting mostly agree that Lopez had a big beef with the Army about visiting his dying mother in Puerto Rico last November. When she did die, it took four days before the soldier was finally given permission to leave. As a result, he missed the family wake for his devoutly Catholic mother, arriving in the early morning hours before the funeral. The service had been delayed five days so he could attend, and he had to be back on base within 24 hours.

Then on the afternoon of April 2, the soldier went to human resources once again to request a leave-of-absence application to return to Puerto Rico to help settle his family’s affairs. According to witnesses in the office, a supervisor told him to come back the next day. Instead, he returned minutes later with the semiautomatic pistol and opened fire, killing two soldiers, including the supervisor  

But a week later, a spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command stated that the Army had yet to establish a “concrete motive” for the deadly rampage.

At a press conference Fort Hood’s commander, Lt. Gen. Milley, said only that what precipitated the assault was an “escalating argument,” with Lopez making no effort to target specific soldiers. But at least one of the first soldiers mortally wounded was, in fact, involved in the dispute.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down by the end of the year, Mark Mitchell, believes something must be done for U.S. soldiers coming home. “I think it’s a looming problem,” he said, “and it’s a time bomb.”

        

Loyola Marymount University is offering the pilot extension course “Healing the Soul: Veterans and their Families,” May 31, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. It will examine the best practices to help veterans and family members heal their spiritual and behavioral wounds. Designed for ministerial, mental health and veteran-related professionals, tuition is $95. Information: (310) 338-2799, crs@lmu.edu or http://extension.lmu.edu/crs.


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