The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 6, 2014

Lessons from 2nd Fort Hood

Why it matters: We owe it to our military personnel to take the time, compromise on solutions


The Mankato Free Press

---- — The shooting at Fort Hood last week has stirred up more debates about guns and mental health but adding little more than some oratorical dust.

Consider these elements:

n Army Spec. Ivan Lopez, who killed three and wounded 16 others before taking his own life, was “under diagnosis” for post-traumatic stress disorder but had “not yet been diagnosed.” This perplexed mental health professionals who reportedly said it takes about one hour to determine PTSD.

n The .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol he bought off base was purchased legally. However, although under treatment, there was no way of knowing he had purchased the handgun. And, under recently-enacted legislation pushed by the National Rifle Association, his commanding officers were barred from asking him about it even if they suspected.

n After the Washington Naval Yard shooting last year in which 12 people were shot to death, the Defense Department admitted it had done a poor job securing the facility, screening personal and recognizing and addressing the mental health issues of the shooter. Months later, we are still addressing base security.

n Questions about why combat-trained service people are not carrying side arms while on base have again surfaced and some members of Congress want to re-examine that policy. But despite the Fort Hood shooting of 2009, the Naval Yard shooting in 2013 and now this latest shooting, efforts to introduce such legislation, little action has advanced except to post signs more prominently telling people firearms are not allowed in federal facilities.

To this last point, soldiers once were allowed to carry arms if base commanders deemed it appropriate. However, in 1993, all personnel except security detail were barred from carrying firearms. Following the 2009 shootings, not only did the ban remain but now soldiers are required to register with their commanders the weapons they store on base — regardless of conceal carry or permit to carry laws in that state.

Clearly, there are efforts that can and should be dealt with immediately.

We need to re-examine at least which personnel can be authorized to carry firearms on base beyond just security personnel. As a compromise, restrictions on civilians could remain but possibly consider allowing highly-trained commissioned and non-commissioned officers to carry side arms and have quick access to other weapons.

Also, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that about three quarters of troops who say that they grapple with mental illness report that they have been doing so long before joining the military. It also found that most suicide attempts by soldiers are not associated with combat experience but pre-enlistment mental health issues.

More must be done to identify problems before enlistment rather than evaluating before deployment as is done now.

There’s also the question of how the military treats mental health, with some accusing the system of over-prescribing medications rather than the longer — and more costly — treatment of counseling and therapy.

Lastly, the regulations prohibiting commanding officers from asking about privately owned weapons at home must be rescinded. Base commanders and other officers — as well as trained enlisted personnel — are key to helping identify those who need help and guiding them to receive it.

The argument that persons bent on suicide will use anything else if guns are not available is preposterous. Public health experts have reported that nine percent of suicide attempts by all methods are fatal but 85 percent of the time attempts made with a gun result in death. And of those who had tried suicide and failed, 89 to 95 percent did not become future victims of suicide, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

With the increase on these isolation incidents and the rise in veteran suicides, how to treat military personnel both pre- and post-service has been difficult and the focus becomes intense only after such shootings. Unfortunately once the spotlight dims, so does the overall effort.

These are people who have signed up to defend us with their lives; surely we can accommodate extraordinary efforts to keep them as safe as possible.