Reports of yet another shooting at Fort Hood were not hours old before the speculation began.
“Gunman who killed 3, wounded 16 at Fort Hood was being treated for mental illness,” read one of the first headlines from the Kansas City Star, implying that the wartime experiences of the young infantryman turned military truck driver in Iraq served as a catalyst for the bloodshed, including his suicide. Soon the incident took on a national policy flavor, as outlets such as Fox News tied it to domestic gun regulation.
This tragedy, the latest in a yearslong staccato of on-base violence and troubling suicide statistics, adds to the national dialogue of the greatest problems facing a country coming home from more than a decade of war, and looking for a simple and tidy solution to the pain it feels.
“People want to look for blame, and that’s the difficulty right here,” says Joe Davis, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“What we don’t want is the use of the military medical community as a scapegoat for this,” he says, pointing to those who believe a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis is a clear answer to questions about acts of violence like the Fort Hood shooting.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based advocacy group, said Thursday that incidents like this should not tarnish the reputation of the troops the U.S. deploys, often multiple times, to foreign wars and tours abroad.
“In moments like this, there is a tendency by some to paint a broad brush across the entire veterans community and it's important to guard against that mistake,” said IAVA CEO Paul Rieckhoff in a statement. “We encourage everyone – especially those in the media and political positions – to be thoughtful and responsible in their reactions and to remember that correlation does not imply causation.”
Veterans’ issue will only grow more portentous as the U.S. prepares to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, drastically downsize the military and prepare to care for a swelling surge of retired combat veterans.
Army Secretary John McHugh addressed the shooting roughly 12 hours after it occurred at a preplanned hearing before Congress early Thursday.
“Even at this point, the circumstances remain very fluid,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioning against premature conclusions.
McHugh described his 10:45 p.m. phone call with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel the previous night, identifying the alleged shooter as an enlisted soldier, believed to be Spc. Ivan Lopez, according to subsequent media reports. He joined the Army in 2008, McHugh said, first as an infantryman before switching to a military truck driver. His records show he deployed to Iraq in 2011 for four months, but was neither wounded nor involved in direct combat. He was undergoing “a variety of treatment and diagnoses” for mental health conditions.
Three people died and 16 were injured before the soldier shot and killed himself with a weapon he purchased recently, McHugh said. He kept the gun at his residence off the base, and thus outside the realm of jurisdiction for military registration rules.
“We’re going to keep an open mind and an open investigation, and we will go where the facts lead us,” McHugh said.
As was the case for Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood in 2009, Aaron Alexis at the Navy Yard last year and Jeffrey T. Savage at Norfolk earlier this month, no amount of public scorn, courtroom procedure or Pentagon investigations may ever reveal the true cause of the violence.
“To hear that soldiers who fought overseas, won and returned home to be killed by a fellow soldier is just heartbreaking,” says Josh, an Army combat engineer captain with three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, who asked to be cited by a pseudonym due to his active status. “In the military, we rely on our battle buddies so much, and to have that trust betrayed is devastating.”
Soldiers have wildly different reactions to combat stress, says Josh, who himself has been diagnosed with mild PTSD. He cites his first sergeant from a previous deployment who had with three prior tours each lasting more than a year, and including some of the War on Terror’s most intense fighting. He was able to talk freely about his experiences without any sort of visceral reaction. Yet other soldiers would descend into “mental breakdowns and violent outbursts” when reminded of their tours, even if they hadn’t seen combat.
Clarified on April 3, 2014:
This story has been
updated to reflect the name of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America