U.S. Army / Flickr U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan, 2010

It's the Gun, Not the Shooter

The Real Lessons From Fort Hood

The recent shooting at Fort Hood, which echoed a rampage on the same base in 2009 that left 13 dead, should be seen as a warning that guns and mental illness do not mix. It should not be seen as a sign that returning service members, with or without posttraumatic stress, are ticking time bombs that pose grave risks to society. Despite the military’s aggressive campaign this decade to destigmatize mental health issues, service members still face high barriers, both cultural and personal, to coming forward and seeking help. It would only add to the tragedy in Fort Hood if this rampage raises those hurdles even higher.

Recent figures from an impressive Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll indicate that only 20 percent of the 2.6 million service members who have served in this century’s wars suffer from some form of posttraumatic stress and major depression. The vast majority of those who serve come home psychologically healthy and resilient, with a work ethic that is a clear asset in many academic and job environments. In war, they learned astute leadership, split-second assessment- and decision-making, endurance, selfless service, and how to tap into deep reserves of energy. After the battle, those skills allow them to be high functioners, individuals of remarkable virtue and wisdom who can take on more than a full plate and excel at what they do.

In courses I have taught on ethics and war, I am often impressed by veterans who are willing to share their experiences. These men and women, who are largely in their 20s, have been in the thick of complicated counterinsurgency and intelligence gathering operations, piloting and reconnaissance missions in insurgent villages, and interrogation and detention operations -- all situations in which rage could get the better of calm. The demands that have been placed on them are staggering and their achievements immense.

But still, there is sometimes a wariness to the faces of service members and veterans I know. They don’t want their own occasional jumpiness or nightmares to trip them up; they see others who have broken down and worry that they will too. And so they work hard to guard their own toughness. Some train for ironman triathlons as soon as they get home; some sublimate their sense of social disconnect by retreating from family or friends and immersing themselves in work; some women I know try to "outbro the bros."

At the same time, most are struggling with moral doubts about some of the things they did and saw in battle, which mix with their pride and sense of being part of a noble cause. It takes time for them to sort out the messy moral terrain of war -- whether they could have done something different to avoid the accidental turret gun discharge that blew off the face of another service member; whether they were right to place so much trust in COIN, to convince other soldiers to put themselves at risk in building strong relations with a local family, only to have that family turn on them. It is impossible not to feel some guilt, some self-doubt, some anger. These are the deep injuries of war and too many soldiers bury them.

They are on the guard for themselves, but also against others. They don’t want to feed the stereotype about warriors who come home broken. And they fear that talking about their moral injuries openly with civilians will lead to the demonization of war and its actors. And so they walk a careful line. It is not uncommon for a service member to be diligent about helping his or her buddies get treatment, staying alert to signs of risky and suicidal behavior, or promoting Pentagon and VA campaigns to destigmatize mental health treatment for service members and their families, even as he or she stays stoic and tough.

That brings us back to the Fort Hood tragedy. The biggest army base in the United States, Fort Hood is the size of a small city. But it is not a city many of us can visit. Soldiers wind up there after their tours of duty to begin the difficult work of reintegration into society. But many of them start that work without regular contact with civilians. Whatever the benefits of troop camaraderie for making peace with war, and there are many, there are also costs.

Specialist Ivan Lopez returned to Fort Hood after one tour in which he was apparently not exposed to combat. Although the details of his life after his return are only now emerging, what we do know is that he recently purchased a .45 Smith&Wesson semiautomatic pistol from a store near the base (the same one from which the 2009 shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan, purchased his gun) and used it to kill three and wound 16 before killing himself. It is nearly certain that he brought the gun on base illegally. I asked retired Navy Captain and psychiatrist William Nash, who has deployed with Marines and spent time at Quantico and other installations, about general polices toward having private guns on bases. “I believe it is 99 percent likely that the shooter brought his own weapon and ammunition aboard the base, secretly and illegally, such as in the trunk of his car,” he told me over email. “Except for shooting ranges, the only people on base who are issued weapons and ammunition are security forces (military cops) who are trained and supervised as cops. On ranges, service members must check out a weapon and use a specific number of rounds of ammunition during the training, then turn it all back in (cleaned) afterward.” Different bases will tailor the policy, but the general outlines remain the same. The problem comes with enforcement, he added. Not every person is sent through a metal detector at the gates of the base, nor is every vehicle inspected for firearms. We don’t yet know the details of the security check in the case of Lopez. But presumably he slipped through with his gun undetected. And it was all too easy to buy a gun in Texas.

The issue of service members having personal firearms is linked to the broader question of posttraumatic stress. A few years ago, I sat on a review board, led by then Army Vice Chief Peter Chiarelli, which was set up in response to the suicide epidemic within the military. At these meetings, general and colonels on whose watch recent suicides had taken place reviewed the likely factors and proximate causes of the fatalities. With his impatience barely concealed, Chiarelli demanded of his commanders after each review, “what are the lessons learned.” In truth, there were few universal threads except profound humiliation, despair, drugs, and guns. The issue of commanders being able to confiscate personal arms came up repeatedly in these meetings, as did frustration at NRA-backed laws that prohibit commanders from being able to “collect or record any information” about private firearms owned by service members living off base. Chiarelli has spoken out publicly about the ruling: “Suicide in most cases is a spontaneous event” often fueled by drugs and alcohol. But “if you can separate the individual from the weapon,” he added, “you can lower the incidences of suicide.” The same likely holds for rampages.

There is an unsung hero in this tragic shooting. And that is the military police woman who used her authorized gun to stem the killing spree. According to Lt. General Mark Milley, commander at Fort Hood, Lopez “was approaching her at about 20 feet,” when he reached under his jacket and pulled out his weapon. “She engaged him, and “he put the weapon to his head.” The media has not revealed her name. But this female officer was doing her duty as a U.S. service member, and was trained expertly in the discriminate use of firearms against the right targets. It is a story we should remember as we open the combat ranks to women. And it is a story to remember about the authorized and proper use of weapons. The major lesson of this tragedy, though, is that we shouldn’t tar service members with the violent rage of a few or forget our own sacred obligations, as a nation, to care for troops when they come home and help them make peace with war.

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