PHOENIX, Arizona – While investigators probe for a motive behind the mass shooting at the Fort Hood military base in Texas Thursday, in which an army psychiatrist is suspected of killing 13 people, military personnel at the base are in shock as the incident “brings the war home.”
“Fort Hood is pretty much a ghost town right now,” Specialist Michael Kern, an active duty veteran of the Iraq war, told IPS by telephone. “Most units gave their soldiers the day off. Security is heightened all over. There are soldiers on guard everywhere. In my opinion, they are afraid of another attack.”
Kern, who is based at Fort Hood, served in Iraq from March 2007 to March 2008.
“We’re all in shock,” Kern added, “Every single person that I’ve talked to is in shock. I’m surprised this hits so close to home, but at the same time, I knew something like this was going to happen given what else is happening – the war is coming home, and something needs to be done.”
“Innocent civilians are being wounded and killed here at home by soldiers, and this is completely unacceptable,” he said.
The alleged gunman, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, entered a Soldier Readiness Center (SRC), where troops get medical evaluations and complete paperwork just prior to being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, and opened fire with two non-military issued handguns.
Maj. Hasan killed 13 people, 12 of them soldiers, and wounded over 30 others, before being shot four times by a civilian police officer. Hasan is now in stable condition in a local hospital, where he is in the custody of military authorities.
Col. John Rossi, a spokesman at Fort Hood, told reporters that Hasan was “stable and in one of our civilian hospitals”. Rossi added, “He’s on a ventilator.”
Maj. Hasan joined the army just out of high school and is 39 years old. He had counseled wounded war veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, and was transferred to Fort Hood in April. He had recently received orders to deploy to Afghanistan.
His cousin, Nader Hasan, has said in media interviews that Maj. Hasan was very reluctant to be deployed overseas and had agitated not to be sent. “We’ve known over the last five years that was probably his worst nightmare,” he said.
Responding to the allegations in the media that the attack was based on his Muslim faith, Kern told IPS that he did not know of anyone on the base who felt this was the case.
“We all wear the same uniform here, it’s all green. I’ve seen the news, but most folks here assume it’s just a soldier that snapped,” Kern explained. “I have not talked to anyone who thinks what he did has anything to do with him being a Muslim. There are thousands of Muslims serving with dignity in the U.S. military, in all four branches.”
Fort Hood, located in central Texas, is one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world. It contains up to 50,000 soldiers, and is one of the most heavily deployed to both occupations.
Tragically, Fort Hood has also born much of the brunt from its heavy involvement in both occupations. Fort Hood soldiers have accounted for more suicides than any other Army post since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In this year alone, the base is averaging over 10 suicides each month – at least 75 have been recorded through July of this year alone.
In a strikingly similar incident on May 11, 2009, a U.S. soldier gunned down five fellow soldiers at a stress-counseling centre at a U.S .base in Baghdad.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a news conference at the Pentagon at the time that the shootings occurred in a place where “individuals were seeking help”.
Mullen added, “It does speak to me, though, about the need for us to redouble our efforts, the concern in terms of dealing with the stress… It also speaks to the issue of multiple deployments.”
Commenting on the incident in nearly parallel terms, U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said that the Pentagon needs to redouble its efforts to relieve stress caused by repeated deployments in war zones that is further exacerbated by limited time at home in between deployments.
The condition described by Mullen and Gates is what veteran health experts often refer to as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
While soldiers returning home are routinely involved in shootings, suicide, and other forms of self-destructive violent behaviours as a direct result of their experiences in Iraq, we have yet to see an event of this magnitude on a base in the U.S.
To many, the shocking story of a soldier killing five of his comrades does not come as a surprise considering that the military has, for years now, been sending troops with untreated PTSD back into the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to an Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center analysis, reported in the Denver Post in August 2008, more than “43,000 service members – two-thirds of them in the Army or Army Reserve – were classified as non-deployable for medical reasons three months before they deployed to Iraq.
In April 2008, the RAND Corporation released a stunning report revealing that, “Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan – 300,000 in all – report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment.”
President Barack Obama, speaking during an event at the Department of the Interior in Washington, said that the mass shooting at Fort Hood was a “horrific outburst of violence”. He added: “It is horrifying that they should come under fire at an army base on American soil.”
Victor Agosto, an Iraq war veteran who was discharged from the military after publicly refusing to deploy to Afghanistan, has had firsthand experience with the SRC at Fort Hood, where he too was based.
“I knew there would be a confrontation when I was there, because the only reason to do that process is to deploy,” Agosto, speaking to IPS near Fort Hood, explained.
Agosto was court-martialed for refusing an order to go to the SRC to prepare to deploy to Afghanistan.
“I was court-martialed for refusing the order to SRC in that very same building. I didn’t enter the building, but I didn’t go in because I was refusing the process,” Agosto continued. “It’s a pretty important place in my life, so it’s interesting to me that this happened there.”