By Charlene Muhammad
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
(FinalCall.com)—The mental and emotional toll of combat from America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on military service personnel is once again center stage after the latest shooting by an Army specialist on a U.S. military base. Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, 34, has been identified as the gunman in the April 2 shooting that left four dead and 16 wounded, including the shooter in Fort Hood, Texas.
Investigators are blaming unstable mental health as a fundamental cause of the shooting.
But, Spc. Ivan Lopez’ actions have spun America into yet another national debate on gun violence when the dialogue belongs on quality mental health treatment in the military, argue activists.
Veterans’ advocates and activists say the incessant refusal by some politicians and corporate media to acknowledge the untreated mental illness soldiers experience during and after war combat feeds the violent fall-out caused by wars undergirded by America’s foreign policy.
An Army truck driver from Puerto Rico, Spc. Lopez was undergoing treatment for depression and anxiety while being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, base officials said.
Mr. Lopez walked into a base building around 4 p.m., April 2 and began firing a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol. He then got into a vehicle and continued shooting before entering another building on the Army post. He eventually was confronted by military police in a parking lot, Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, senior officer at the nation’s largest Army base, said.
As he came within 20 feet of a police officer, Mr. Lopez put his hands up but then reached under his jacket and pulled out his gun. The officer drew her own weapon, and the suspect put his gun to his head and pulled the trigger a final time, Lt. Gen. Milley said.
“When it happened, I thought this was again the ghosts of the Iraq War showing themselves and I look at this in terms of the beginning of more of the problems we’ll see emerging since the Iraq War ended,” said Michael Prysner, an Iraq War veteran with the ANSWER (Act Now to End War and Racism) Coalition. He advocates for better health treatment for veterans.
The shootings occurred just five years after then-Army psychiatrist Major Nidal M. Hasan, killed 13 and wounded 39 more at Fort Hood in November 2009. Mr. Nidal was convicted and sentenced to death last year in August.
Mr. Prysner said military officials and politicians are erroneously stating that since Mr. Lopez wasn’t really in combat in Iraq, that it’s not clear he had Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which may have contributed to his actions.
But, all of this comes on the heels of the Army’s own study that the crisis in mental health care stems from soldiers joining with those issues, he said.
“All of this is an attempt to try to shift the blame, but the reality is it doesn’t matter what the source of someone’s trauma is. When you sign up for the military, you’re putting yourself in care of the military and you have no one else to care for you,” Mr. Prysner told The Final Call.
“Those in the care of the military’s mental health system are in such a desperate and humiliating situation that it’s driving many to suicide. It drives many to madness, and I think that as the facts come out, we’ll see that Ivan Lopez is tied into this type of unit or going through this process that probably played a factor in his psychological break,” he continued.
While mainstream media and politicians deny it, the Lopez shooting definitely stems from PTSD, activists say.
In a statement released by the family of Mr. Lopez, who live in Puerto Rico, he is described as a “calm family man who always looked out for the well-being of his home and a good son.”
According to Ivan Lopez, Sr. his father, the younger Mr. Lopez was under medical treatment said the statement. The death of his mother, grandfather, transferring military bases “surely affected his existing condition because of his experiences as a soldier,” the statement continued.
According to the PTSD Foundation of America, about 30 percent of the men and women who have spent time in war zones experience PTSD and an additional 20 to 25 percent have had partial PTSD at some point in their lives.
Referred to as the “unseen wounds of war” by the foundation, PTSD occurs not just in military circumstances, but after life-threatening events including natural disasters, serious accidents, or physical or sexual assault, whether as adults or children.
Those with the psychiatric disorder often relive a past trauma and become upset, avoid people or places that remind them of that trauma or they feel guarded, irritable or are easily startled, say experts.
The PTSD Foundation of America organization states on its website that PTSD has been detected among veterans of other several wars. “Estimates of PTSD from the Gulf War are as high as 10%. Estimates from the war in Afghanistan are between 6 and 11 percent. Current estimates of PTSD in military personnel who served in Iraq range from 12 percent to 20 percent,” notes ptsdusa.org.
Obviously Spc. Lopez had some psychological issues and shouldn’t have been in the Army, but that speaks to the great negligence of the Army with soldiers who have mental health issues, Mr. Prysner argued.
He noted that Spc. Lopez was in the Warrior Transition Brigade Unit at Fort Hood, which is a unit that exists for physically or psychologically wounded soldiers that are disabled and facing discharge from the military. They’re to receive treatment and care in the unit while they’re being processed out of the military, he explained.
But life in the brigade during that transition is abysmal, stated Mr. Prysner, who said he’s visited several such brigades across the country.
“It takes years and years and years possibly for the process to go through and so all the soldiers who are waiting to get their lives back on track and to move on from what they’ve been through are stuck in this system that seems like it has no end in sight,” he said.
Mr. Prysner argued the shootings stem from a type of terrorism that can be blamed on military commanders and soldiers’ chain of command for creating the conditions that cause such atrocities.
“There have been many, many thousands of young men and women who have joined the military with the best of intentions and were chewed up and spit out as completely different people, and we’re seeing record numbers kill themselves and smaller isolated incidents of extreme violence,” Mr. Prysner added.
The ANSWER Coalition is calling on President Barack Obama to declare an emergency situation to expedite those awaiting processing and begin a complete overhaul of the mental health system.
“That’s what’s needed and as long as the government is refusing to do that they’re going to continue to have massacres like this and they’re going to continue to have 22 veterans a day killing themselves,” Mr. Prysner told The Final Call, referring to a 2012 study released by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
According to the “Suicide Data Report, 2012,” 22 veterans a day committed suicide in 2010. The report was drafted by Dr. Janet Kemp, a registered nurse, and Dr. Robert Bossarte also under the auspices of Mental Health Services, and Suicide Prevention Program.
Its statistics are based on a four-year study (2009-2012) of cases where military service was reported, but only includes information from the first 21 states that contributed data. That excludes California and Texas, which have larger veteran populations, the authors explained.
Advocates like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is pushing for The Suicide Prevention for America’s Act, introduced by Senator John Walsh, the first Iraq veteran in the Senate.
In part, the act would improve access to care for troops and veterans by extending combat eligibility, review wrongful discharges (of troops who struggle with mental health issues and discharged for unseen issues), and improve mental health care and suicide prevention programs by requiring an annual review of programs in the Department of Defense and Veterans Association.
Without drastic changes, Dr. Umar Abdullah Johnson believes the problem will worsen. “I am not surprised. This is becoming a trend now, of individuals who are affiliated with one branch of the Armed Services or another,” he stated.
He said the problem stems from three reasons. America has a shortage of recruits so it’s targeting anyone it can to enter the military and ignoring people’s mental illness or their pre-disposition to mental illness.
Others develop mental illness because of the military’s unnatural nature, its isolated and strict culture, and own governance and court process. And, individuals coming back from combat, whether they participated directly or were exposed, affects the human brain, which isn’t designed to cope with that type of trauma on a regular basis said the noted author and activist.
“The sad thing about it is there are going to be more of them. The government, Congress, even the Senate, rarely investigates the military because the military is the bottom line,” Dr. Johnson said.
“When your whole status as a world superpower, as an international oppressor rests on the shoulders of your military and the people who lead it, you’re not likely to question or hear issues of human rights in the military,” he continued.
The government’s solution is giving speeches about pulling the troops but funding is funneled to defense contractors and the military industrial complex, activists contend.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined will be the most expensive wars in U.S. history, totaling between $4 to $6 trillion, according to Linda Bilmes, senior lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Those costs include long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs.
“The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid,” Ms. Bilmes wrote in “The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions Will Constrain Future National Security Budgets,” released March 2013.
According to her report, since 2001, the U.S. has expanded the quality, quantity, availability and eligibility of benefits for military personnel and veterans, and that’s led to unprecedented growth in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense budgets. And those benefits will increase over the next 40 years, Ms. Bilmes indicated.
“Additional funds are committed to replacing large quantities of basic war equipment and to support ongoing diplomatic presence and military assistance in the Iraq and Afghanistan region, and the large sums borrowed to finance operations there will impose substantial long-term debt servicing costs,” Ms. Bilmes continued.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)