New Shooting Revives Old Questions About Mental Health In Military

The mass shooting at Fort Hood, the second at the same Army base in just five years, is renewing questions about the state of mental health treatment on U.S. military bases.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

At a Senate hearing this morning, the secretary of the Army, John McHugh, talked about the Fort Hood shooting and the shooter, Ivan Lopez.

He did have two deployments, including one four-month, approximately four-month deployment to Iraq as a truck driver. His records show no wounds, no involvement - direct involvement in combat.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has been trying to uncover more of Ivan Lopez's past, and he joins me now. And, Danny, it sounds like this is not a case of a soldier's mental health problems being linked to service in Iraq.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: Robert, I think it's way too early to say that. Military officials have been saying that to reporters all day long. And the implication seems to be that Lopez's mental health troubles had nothing to do with his service in the Army or the war. As you know, military officials have been very sensitive about this issue because their own studies have shown that large numbers of troops have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries and high rates of PTSD and other mental health problems.

But it's too early to say what Lopez did or didn't experience in Iraq. It's true that during his four months there at the end of 2011 things were much quieter than they had been in the previous couple of years. Still, the military reported that 10 troops died in Iraq while Lopez was there.

SIEGEL: You've been reporting on mental health problems in the military for a long time. Do you find it surprising to hear about a soldier with mental illness?

ZWERDLING: Of course not. In fact, just recently, a big study - the biggest study of its kind came out. It was conducted by a network of researchers, including in the Army, at Harvard, at the National Institute of Mental Health. Listen to this. They found that roughly one-quarter of all soldiers had one or more mental health disorders. Not just PTSD but also depression, anxiety, substance abuse. That's twice the rate of people their age in the general population.

And about half of those troubled soldiers already had serious mental health problems when they joined the Army, which raises a question, Robert: How is it that the Army has recruited tens of thousands of young people who have psychiatric disorders?

SIEGEL: And I suppose that sending people who have psychiatric disorders into a war zone, even though a war zone that's winding down, would not be the best therapeutic treatment.

ZWERDLING: Probably. Perhaps not recommended. Just a little while ago, the top commander at Fort Hood, Mark Milley, told a press conference that Lopez had a history of mental health problems. Let's hear that excerpt.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL MARK MILLEY: We have a very strong evidence that he had a medical history that indicates unstable psychiatric or psychological condition.

SIEGEL: What do we know about that history or what kind of help he might have been getting?

ZWERDLING: The Army hasn't given more details yet. But I'd like to take a step back from Ivan Lopez himself for a moment and - because he's just the latest soldier who raises questions about troops and mental illness. NPR, I and my colleague at ProPublica, and others have been documenting for years now that a lot of troops have to struggle to get good care even when they feel they're falling apart.

For instance, I just talked with a wife today at Fort Hood. She told me, and she sent me documents to corroborate it, that she and her husband tried seven months to see a psychiatrist even though, she said, he had become a different man. Meanwhile, Lopez's records show that he actually spent most of the last four years not at Fort Hood, of course, but at Fort Bliss in Texas, in El Paso, Texas.

A Republican congresswoman, Kay Granger, said last year that she was ashamed when she got dozens of reports from soldiers at Fort Bliss saying they had to struggle to get proper care even when they felt they were falling apart. And I have talked to veterans advocates, and I've talked to people in the Army who say these problems are still going on.

I should stress that we asked Army spokesman for their response. A spokesman at Fort Hood said today we've done everything we can to help soldiers in trouble. And we didn't get any response from Fort Bliss.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. Danny, thank you very much.

ZWERDLING: Thank you, Robert.

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