While an Army official said Friday that Specialist Ivan Lopez’ possible mental health problems were not the “direct precipitating factor” in Wednesday’s shooting at Fort Hood that killed three people and wounded 16 others, his struggles nonetheless shone a light on mental health in the U.S. military. That spotlight revealed a problem still unsolved.
Lopez, 34, was apparently involved in an altercation with other soldiers that escalated. He had been undergoing treatment for depression and anxiety and had been assessed for post-traumatic stress disorder despite having completed a tour of duty in Iraq that did not take him onto the battlefield. The tragedy at Fort Hood might be an anomaly, but Lopez’s mental health situation was not so unusual: after a decade of war, a huge number of men and women who have served in the U.S. military are suffering from injuries both mental and physical – and not all of them are the result of combat.
A poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of the 2.6 million men and women who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with mental or physical injuries and feel that the government is not meeting their needs. There are myriad programs aimed at increasing employment and reducing homelessness among veterans, but mental illness can play a part in both. Experts say a more holistic approach to treating veterans is needed.
Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist and retired Army Brigadier General, told msnbc that drawing a line between combat and non-combat injuries obscures the reality of military conflict and its effects. “Whether an individual actually engages in combat, whether it’s shooting or being shot at, just to be deployed on a forward operating base, the entire time you’re there you’re exposed to fear and death. You’re witnessing it,” she said. “There’s an impact there.”
Just because there are resources available for servicemembers and veterans who need mental health treatment doesn’t mean that they’re taking advantage of it. Despite pervasive dissatisfaction and widespread suffering reported in the poll, mental health resources are already stretched thin. A Department of Veterans Affairs survey from November found that a full third of new mental health patients seeking care through the VA were not seen within two weeks. For psychiatry appointments, the average wait was longer than a month.
In Lopez’s case, Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the commander in charge at Fort Hood, told NBC News Thursday that Lopez had been “undergoing a diagnosis process” for post-traumatic stress disorder. Military officials also told NBC News that there was no record that Lopez saw combat while he was deployed in Iraq, nor were there any records that medically confirm a brain injury Lopez claimed he suffered from.