Last week Iraq veteran, 34-year-old Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, moved through three buildings at Fort Hood military base in Texas where he systematically opened fire with a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol. Sixteen people were wounded in the attack. Mr. Lopez left three dead bodies before he turned his gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. This was the second mass shooting in five years at the country’s largest military base. It was the third shooting at a military base in the United States in about six months (including the shooting spree in September that left twelve people dead at the Washington Navy Yard). Reports that came out regarding this incident stated that Mr. Lopez suffered from anxiety and depression and was being evaluated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, to simply dismiss Ivan Lopez as depressed and/or anxious, or “just” suffering from PTSD, is to dismiss the reality and casualties of war.
The Fort Hood tragedy is a tragedy caused by war. It is a tragedy cause by humans – who instead of focusing on peace and collaboration focus on war and aggression. Like previous killings by former soldiers this shooting highlights symptoms of a bigger problem. Mr. Lopez had been twice deployed to Iraq. Although the military states that he has not been in “direct combat” he witnessed war. The notion that if one has not been in direct combat, s/he is “protected” from war is false. For example, if one is in the military let’s say working in an office for long hours under pressure, or having to handle dead bodies, or pushing the button that will kill people 10,000 miles away – all these things will affect him/her the long run. Even further, the actual process of becoming a soldier is pretty traumatic, as a study released this year documented how students at US military academies are exposed to sexists and offensive, bullying behavior.
Having gone through military training Mr. Lopez was taught how to kill other humans, how to dehumanize others and kill on command. Most importantly and relevant to this shooting, he learned to deal with his anger and aggression through violence not through peace and collaboration. To simply talk about this shooting or all military shootings by using only a mental illness perspective is not enough; we need to further complicate the conversation by talking about access to guns, a culture of militarism and violence and the fact that we have been at war for many years. In the Iraq/Afghanistan wars alone, 2.6 million people served, many for multiple deployments and for significantly longer amount of times. Now, as hundreds of thousands of people are returning home they experience, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, brain injury, phantom limb syndrome, etc.
In 2012 military suicides hit a record high — with about one soldier taking his/her life every day that year. Further, the number of male veterans under the age of 30 who commit suicide jumped by 44% percent between 2009 and 2011 and suicide rates for female vets also increased by 11%. Further and equally disturbing, increase in suicide is not just a military phenomenon. In 2009, in the United States, suicide surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of injury death. Studies show that there are links between economic factors (loss of job, unemployment, etc.) and the raise of suicides. These statistics, as they pertain to veterans in particular however, indicate the difficulties one has in re-entering civilian life. Studies also show that young veterans in particular are at a higher risk of suicide – about 3 times the rate of active duty troops. Several factors contribute to this. First, most veterans obviously return with deep psychological scars. Second, most veterans do not receive appropriate care, and when they do seek out help, the military is much more comfortable to medicate than treat (with talk therapy). And even, when talk therapy becomes an option, military personnel rules hinder the therapeutic process, as veterans do not have complete confidentiality. Third, and this is how the psychological and social is intertwined, most of these young men and women who have served our country return from war, with little social support, no real economic prospects and deep scars. Often recruited from low-income, neighborhoods they come back home to low income jobs (if they can find work at all), a poor health care system (we all have heard the stories about the level of military healthcare), and poor social skills (as they have been taught how to kill on command with little or no remorse). Add that the stress of having survived a military culture of aggression, sexual abuse, bullying and the trauma of war and suicide makes sense. Since they are younger they have had less time in civilian life, meaning less time to form connections, less time to learn how to live outside war.
It is very possible that Mr. Lopez suffered from PTSD as it is very common among military veterans. PTSD may occur after one has experienced some type of trauma. In simple terms, PTSD is a normal reaction to an abnormal event/trauma. War is an abnormal event. Killing people or seeing people being killed should be a traumatic event. To pathologize this (or any form of mental health issues) is to be an accomplice in a culture of destruction, ruled by hyper militarism, homophobia, and white patriarchy. Further, PTSD is not just found in the military. Statistics show that in general, more than half of all men and women experience at least one trauma in their lives, meaning an event significant enough to cause psychological scars. Some examples are: sexual assault, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, physical assault, natural disasters or injury. Recent studies have shown that people growing up in inner city neighborhoods who are exposed to poverty, gun violence, and poor healthcare are more likely to suffer from PTSD than war veterans. This investigation linking poverty with PTSD highlights how dismissing PTSD simply as a chemical imbalance is false, as one always needs to also consider social, political and cultural factors.
When it comes to Fort Hood, mental illness or suicide as the possible answer is an incomplete answer. This tragedy and as veterans are returning home, they are reminding us of the casualties of war. And as more soldiers return home – as Mr. Lopez has – we will have to face the painful realities of our political choices and rhetoric. Soldiers return home deeply wounded and they need the appropriate services to deal with these wounds, otherwise they will hurt themselves and others. In short we should treat the symptom – suicide, while getting to the root of the problem – our war driven culture, winner takes all mentality. We need to ensure economic stability for everyone so that young people will not see joining the military as the only option to survival.
The tragedy at Fort Hood is a tragedy and an opportunity for all of us towards self-reflection and solutions. We need to make sure that all veterans receive appropriate care. Second, if we are serious about preventing suicides, we need to create an environment where people have social support and live in communities of mutual aid. Lastly, we also need to address the bigger problem – which is how we can change a culture driven by profit and competition where peace is seldom the option and war is always the first and last solution. For veterans in particular, struggling to reintegrate in civilian life, becoming part of a community is imperative. Veterans can seek support through organizations such as: Civilian Soldier Alliance, Service Women’s Action Network, Iraq Veterans Against the War, The War Resisters League.
Therapy also helps. Talking with a counselor can be helpful, as veterans can find a safe space where to process the trauma while learning how to form relationships; learning how to share power, rather than exerting power over someone. Further – treatment has to include more than prescription drugs (often antidepressants that cause suicide ideation) and instead focus on psychotherapy and connections – a reintegration within community and humanity. And, as we at the Critical Therapy Center believe, therapy has to go deeper than just accommodating and reintegrating our veterans. As therapists we can be the change we want to see in the world. In this case, we can begin to talk not only with our veteran patients, but with all our patients about the human cost of war. Instead of silencing veterans by giving them a cocktail of drugs, and pretending that war is necessary, we can challenge them and ourselves to become advocates for change and confront the violent reality of how little this culture values human life.
On Saturday, April 5, 2014, Arise News covered this tragedy. The conversation between Francesca Maximé (Arise) and Silvia Dutchevici (CTC) starts at 21:10.