Fratricide at Fort Hood brings veteran mental health back to forefront

On the plane ride back to the states the Marine next to me started slamming his head against his seat and half-crying in his sleep.

Teenage and clean-cut, he was clenching his fists and sweating enough to smell like a high school locker room.

We had all come off the various Iraqi deserts, hopping a CH-47 Chinook helicopter across the border to Kuwait and then onto a commercial airplane bound for Germany. From Germany it was off to Shannon, Ireland, where the Marine had boarded next to me with only a small rucksack and a jar of peanut butter he apparently brought for a snack, which he occasionally opened to eat with a plastic spoon.

It had been three days in transit for everyone headed home on leave. Just a few more hours over the Atlantic.

When he woke, we talked some. He had been in Ramadi several months, what in the American media during the pre-Surge era occasionally lumped into an area called the Sunni Death Triangle.

I had convoyed there twice with my Army unit. It was a dust bowl base about two hours west of Baghdad. The day before we arrived, insurgents had improvised a dump truck into a bomb and blown up a side gate, killing two troops.

Even back then, I remember looking at the 19-year-old guy next to me having nightmares wondering if someone that young could ever get over those kind of experiences.

Sometimes I think I see the answer, like this week when, clicking through the news, I see an Iraqi veteran at Fort Hood has killed three soldiers and wounded 16 others, before turning the gun on himself when military police confronted him.

The alleged shooter, 34-year-old U.S. Army Spec. Ivan Lopez, apparently sought mental health treatment for depression and anxiety, according to Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, Ft. Hood commanding general.

While it is far too soon to know whether the soldier's four-month-long deployment to Iraq in 2011 (which did not include any combat) played a role in his decision to kill fellow soldiers, the warning signs that he had a self-described traumatic brain injury and other mental issues highlight how veterans continue to need avenues to get help – even for noncombat related stress like separation from his family, which can trigger mental illness.

The incident joins a growing number of tragedies stemming from veterans, including an Army sergeant who killed his squad leader and another soldier in 2008 at an Iraqi patrol base, as well as the 2009 killing of five service members at Camp Liberty in Iraq by an Army sergeant.

The single worst soldier-on-soldier attack was also at Ft. Hood, where Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and injured 32 others in 2009, which he was found guilty and sentenced to the death penalty in August 2013. The motive in the latter case has been deemed terrorism.

Both the White House and Capitol Hill claim help is on the way to address the mental health component of the post-war military, who are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan before the end of the year.

On paper, supporting veterans is one of the few nonpartisan spending agreements in Washington, D.C.

President Barack Obama's 2015 budget proposal allocates $7 billion for expanded mental health services for veterans. House Republicans' own budget version left the additional spending for the Veterans Affairs Administration intact.

“Veterans are, and will remain, the highest priority within this budget,” the Republican-led House budget plan states.

And the costs will likely continue to grow as veterans return, so there is no question the increases will be needed.

About one in five returning veterans are diagnosed with PTSD, according to the Veterans Administration. Each veteran with post traumatic stress disorder costs the Department of Defense an average of $8,300 more per year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2012, and has meant more than $2 billion in spending already.

Meanwhile, the added funding will require Congress to pass a budget that could require difficult wrangling about spending cuts elsewhere, such as the Affordable Care Act and Social Security reform.

As it has throughout two shifting wars, the military has tried to make its own adjustments internally with formal training for its officers and noncommissioned officers about PTSD and brain injuries. Squad leaders are now expected to maintain regular contact with soldiers — even in National Guard and Reserve units.

But, dealing with mentally injured veterans requires more than professionalism. It is going to take a cultural overhaul in how the nation sees service members returning from war and provides real, timely solutions for those who need help, especially those career soldiers who should be able to address their injury with medical professionals when needed without a stigma.

What happens going forward seems to depend on an old equation about how fast some wars fade from statesmen's minds, while other people will mercilessly never forget.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Sat, 04/05/2014 - 9:41am
Stop the endless cycle of wars. Did not need Vietnam, Iraq and Afganistan!
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sat, 04/05/2014 - 1:25pm
Hello Brandon, Thank you, for your service to our Country! My wife always says something like that when she sees a service person in uniform. Her dad served in WWII. He qualified for several Purple Hearts, but never allowed anyone to request one for him. Recently another of his daughters requested again the service medals he had been awarded, lost in fires some time ago, and arranged for them all to be presented once again, by one of our Congressmen. It was a long time before he could talk of events in Africa and Europe at all. We kind of conspired to ask him about this or that over many years, and now he can talk and think of such things almost freely. My son made him a model of a certain Sherman Tank, and he never fails to bring it down from a shelf to share his adventures with loved ones. He says 'the aerial is not quite right, but the model is pretty close.' He saw a newsreel report about American tanks going back and forth through a certain key pass in Italy. He suddenly realized, his tank was the last tank to leave that pass, and the first to return. He had just never thought back on things enough to place them into such a context. He puts a real face to the men who did great things, and suffered these many years since. I think if folks arranged to listen to, and be with and support the veterans they know, both would be the better for it.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sun, 04/06/2014 - 10:54am
Brandon, Yesterday before my comment I looked up the latest stats on vets, if you don't mind, I will share: How many Gulf-Era Veterans are there? In March 2014 there are 3.069 million. More than I thought! I'm a Viet Nam-Era vet. There are 21.266 million total veterans. How many are employed? 2.338 million of the Gulf-Era Veterans are employed. How many are not employed? Well, 172,000 receive unemployment, but there are 559,000 more not employed, for a total of 731,000 not employed, the way I see it. Or as a percent of the total, that 23.9% unemployment rate, or 'not-employment rate' for this population group. I could not find how many are 'under-employed', not working up to their best ever level. Should we see that these people find some work if they want to work? What are the not-employed numbers for the general population? I found the Labor Force is at a 35 year low, people are not being included in the published numbers to provide 'a rose-colored glasses' view of the economy, just like with the unemployment numbers. There are 154.9 million currently in the labor force or employed, but there are 91.8 million not-employed. Or as a percent of the total, that is 59.26% of the actual work force in the United States are not working. I'm just saying. This same idea of using a 'rose-colored glasses' approach applies to the total amount of production occurring the United States, as well. When the government borrows or prints money, that is not production. No good and services were produced, and 'no one built that', there was no industrial capacity growth that did that. I don't think it should be included in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The government is simply borrowing about 8 percent of the GDP each year, so the GDP is being over-reported by about 8%. If the government is saying the economy is growing by 1.5%, based on the GDP, that is simply not true. Subtracting the 8% over-reporting, we get a shrinkage of about 6.5%. This explains the huge unemployment numbers that are not being recognized by one and all. How many Gulf-Era Veterans are on Food Stamps? 900,000. I would say that some of those employed are not making as much as they might like. I couldn't find the number of veterans on supplemental nutrition programs, like SNAP, that provide about $1.40 per meal, but I found how many total people in this country, are on SNAP? 48 million. Or, for a total population in the United States of 321,641,973 that would be 14.9 percent of our population that require this amount of supplemental goods and services at each meal. What is the proposed budget, for the Veterans Administration (2015)? $163.9 billion. One of their objectives is to reduce the homelessness of vets, which is down to 63,000 in 2012. What are the stats on PTSD? The VA says they have received 270,000 applications for post traumatic stress disorder claims. 150,000 have been awarded. What are the stats on disabilities? 670,000 vets have been awarded disability status. (Nov 2013) 100,000 claims were still pending. What are the stats on traumatic brain injury (TBI)? For the general population there are 1.7 million who sustain a TBI each year in the United States: 1.365 million are treated and released from an emergency department. 275,000 are hospitalized, and 52,000 die. For the Gulf war time activity there about 25,000 per year, for a total of 292,000 since 2000. They have about 5 different classifications as to severity of these injuries. There are less than 5000 per year of the more traumatic types. I think there is a lot more that we as a country could do for vets as regards 'mental health' that is not being done. Why leave it to the VA to do? Who does the VA depend on for this work? Why leave it to this small group? What is their success rate? I gather it is not too good. I think people just prearranging to talk with a vet, and getting them to talk through a specific thing would help a lot. Getting some training on how to do this would help such a volunteer a lot. Probably every church in the country would be honored to provide such training as a service. I'm just saying. Let's do some things that make more sense.