For the second time in 5 years, Fort Hood, Texas has become the scene of a shooting tragedy inflicted on the garrison by one of their own. On April 2, 2014 a 34-year-old soldier walked into the 1st Medical Brigade, drew a pistol and opened fire, killing 3 and injuring 16. Then he put the weapon to his own head and shot himself fatally. Unlike Major Nidal Hassan’s lethal 2009 rampage, though, it looks like this was no terrorist attack. Instead, it seems to have been a tragic case of a soldier who just snapped under the weight of too much stress and ran out of control.
From the story that’s emerged, it looks like the gunman, Specialist Ivan Lopez, had been going through a run of bad luck. He’d served in Iraq in 2011, although he hadn’t seen direct combat. Late in 2013, his mother and grandmother died in the space of 2 months. There seems to have been some difficulty in getting leave for his mother’s funeral; an application for a 24-hour compassionate leave allegedly took 5 days to process. In addition, Lopez was being treated for depression and anxiety. It appears that, immediately before the shootings, he’d been involved in an argument with other soldiers; the Army believes this is what triggered the assault.
That could well be true, but the idea of either suicide or a shooting spree seems to have been on Lopez’s mind for at least a month before it happened. On March 1st, he posted on Facebook to say he had lost his inner peace and was full of hatred, and that he thought the devil would take him. The same day he bought a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson M&P handgun from a local gun store – the same store where Maj. Hassan bought his weapon. From witness accounts, it seems like he was carrying the pistol when the argument happened, and a logistics specialist had no legitimate reason to be carrying a concealed private handgun on duty around Fort Hood.
It’s inevitable that there are going to be complaints that the Army should have done more to prevent this tragedy, but in fact it’s hard to see what extra steps they could have taken. Lopez had been diagnosed as mentally ill and was getting treatment for that. He was also under observation to decide if he had post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq. It looks like the Army was taking its duty of care to a mentally ill soldier seriously.
The only criticism that might stick is – if it’s true – the fact it took so long to grant Lopez leave for his mother’s funeral. If a soldier’s parent has just died, there’s no reason why his or her company commander can’t just approve a short leave on the spot. It doesn’t seem likely that was the only cause of the shooting though, so again, it probably wouldn’t have averted what happened.
With the recent high tempo of combat operations, the military has seen a sharp spike in mental health cases, but even without combat, service life often demands a heavy toll from soldiers. Frequent separation from families, enforced moves and constant responsibility make for never ending stress, and sometimes even the best of us need some help in coping with it. The Army has learned a lot in the last few years about how to deal with it. Sadly there’s always something new to learn, but it’s hard to see what could have been done differently here.