The latest tragedy at Fort Hood, Texas, shows that the Army has not done enough to deal with the scourge of mental illness afflicting veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
When 34-year-old Army Spc. Ivan Lopez killed three people and wounded 16 more before taking his own life on April 2, The Army said that his mental health was “not the direct precipitating factor” motivating the shootings. A disagreement with other soldiers at the base was said to have preceded the event.
But Lopez had been treated for depression and anxiety with prescription medications. And, according to his family, he was upset about being granted only a 24-hour leave to attend his mother’s funeral in November.
No matter what subsequent investigations may reveal about Lopez’s immediate and long-term motivations, it is clear that the alarming rate of mental illness among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans must be addressed with more care and compassion.
For Lopez is not alone.
The Department of Veteran Affairs estimates that post-traumatic stress disorder affects about 11 percent of Afghanistan vets and 20 percent of Iraq veterans. In March, JAMA Psychiatry, a major journal, found that about 10 percent of Army soldiers could be diagnosed with “intermittent explosive disorder,” a syndrome that increases the potential for acting on suicidal urges. These soldiers included those, like Lopez, who never saw combat.
The shooting brought up memories of Nov. 5, 2009, when Fort Hood Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan murdered 13 people on the base. But unlike Hasan, Lopez was not motivated by radical Islamist agitation. Lopez was a typical soldier from a respectable middle-class religious family in Puerto Rico, emblematic of the sacrifice made by so many from the island who serve in the armed forces while their fellow citizens don’t have the right to vote in federal elections.
Lopez, like many Iraq and Afghanistan vets, was at least indirectly carrying the burden of a poorly executed foreign policy that led to the misguided invasion of Iraq and the inefficient handling of the war in Afghanistan. In both wars, soldiers have served bravely, but human rights abuses, corruption and ineffective military strategy have clouded the mission.
The military and our government must come to grips with the fallout of these devastating wars and implement policy reforms so they don’t launch other misguided ones.
And above all, they need to avoid blaming the many who served who have become its tragic victims.
Ed Morales is a contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and is the author of “Living in Spanglish.” He can be reached at email@example.com.