More focus needed on mental health for military

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: If Americans demand it, Washington officials will make mental health a higher priority

Investigators may never know exactly why a U.S. soldier, Ivan Lopez, went on a homicidal rampage at Fort Hood Wednesday afternoon, killing three people and wounding 16 more before, when confronted by a military police officer, he turned his gun on himself.

On Thursday, however, Lt. Gen. Mark Milley did make a statement on what most likely was the underlying cause — mental disorder. “We have very strong evidence that he had a medical history that indicates unstable psychiatric or psychological conditions,” Milley told reporters.

Speaking to a U.S. Senate committee, Army Secretary John McHugh said the 34-year-old Lopez “was undergoing a variety of treatments and diagnoses for mental health conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to some sleep disturbance.”

Lopez, who served in the Puerto Rico National Guard and who had been in the Army since 2008, was prescribed medications to deal with the mental health issues, McHugh said.

There’s a possibility that a verbal altercation with other soldiers preceded the shooting spree, Milley said. But while that may have been the spark in some fashion, there’s no immediate explanation for how or why it escalated into a murderous shooting spree. It’s also unknown as to whether Lopez, who saw no combat time during his two tours in Iraq, was targeting specific individual or simply shooting at anyone who had the misfortune of coming into his sight.

This is the second time a deadly shooting has taken place at Fort Hood. In 2009, former psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, then an Army major, created an even bigger bloodbath by killing 13 and wounding 32 others. In Hasan’s case, the murders and assaults were steeped in his twisted view of religion. Convicted of the murders, he is awaiting lethal injection. Beside the location, another common element was where Lopez bought the .45-caliber weapon he sneaked on base — the same Guns Galore store where Hasan bought his.

It also follows the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September in which a dozen were slain and four were hurt before police killed the gunman, and last month’s killing of a sailor by a civilian aboard a Navy ship at Norfolk, Va.

These attacks on our military by those they should be able to trust point to two things. One, security at our bases must continually be reviewed and improved. We send these brave men and women to protect freedom from those who would do us harm. We should ensure they’re safety, especially on U.S. soil.

Second, more needs to be done in the way of treating active military personnel and veterans who are facing mental challenges from their work on behalf of their country. With two long-term wars since Sept. 11, 2001, those who serve in our armed forces have been asked to carry a heavy burden, one that, according to findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leaves them at greater risk for physical and mental problems.

One comment in an article by Reuters on the Wednesday shooting was particularly telling. Alonzo Lunsford, a retired Army sergeant was sustained multiple gunshot wounds during Hasan’s gun assault, said the U.S. military simply hasn’t done enough to treat those who have served in combat theaters and come home with mental scarring from the experience.

“The military,” he said, “needs to go ahead and stop talking about the problem and talking about what we’re going to do. Just do it.”

What’s in place is not working as well as it needs to. Getting the proper help for men and women who have placed their health and their lives on the line for our nation needs to be a greater priority for the military, the politicians in Washington and the American people. Those of us who live in freedom because of what our military has done for us should demand it.

— The Albany Herald Editorial Board