Army Policies Re-Examined After Ft. Hood Shooting

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered a series of investigations in every military branch this week to examine the process used to identify potentially violent troops. Military officials are still puzzled over the shooting at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead and dozens more injured. They're trying to figure out how alleged shooter Nidal Hasan might have slipped through the cracks, and whether the real problem is the military's policies or leaders not following them.

GUY RAZ, host:

We turn now to the investigation into the shootings at Fort Hood - make that investigations.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this past week that he's ordered a whole series of investigations. Every service branch will examine whether it needs to do a better job at identifying potentially violent troops and offering those troops better mental health care.

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reported this past week that accused shooter Nidal Hasan's supervisors warned years ago that he was a problem. And Danny's here with me.

Welcome to the show.


RAZ: You've been talking to officials at Walter Reed and at the Pentagon and the military medical school where Hasan was studying. What did they say? What are they saying about these investigations?

ZWERDLING: They are talking about them as what I would call polite skepticism. I mean, they say, yeah, you know, more studies are potentially useful. The military sometimes does excellent studies, but these officials say most of the problems that Secretary Gates says he wants to study and solve, these are problems that people have known about and debated about for decades, and the answers to them have been laid out and the problem is that people aren't following them.

For example, let's play a quick excerpt from the press conference, Thursday, where Secretary Gates said what he wants to do.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Defense Secretary): I've ordered a 45-day review with three areas of emphasis. First, to find possible gaps or deficiencies in Defense Department programs for identifying service members who could potentially pose credible threats to others.

RAZ: Dan, he sounds pretty straightforward. Why would somebody be skeptical about what the secretary is saying?

ZWERDLING: The problem is it implies that Nidal Hasan fell through the cracks, that people didn't notice that here was a troubled soldier. And as I've been reporting for more than a week now, Nidal Hasan's supervisors and colleagues were reporting that they had serious concerns about him for years. People knew he was a problem, yet the commanding officers did not take the steps that they could have to transfer him to a less responsible post or get rid of him. So that appears to be a failure of leadership, not of policies.

RAZ: But Danny, for years, you've been reporting on the problems with the military's mental health care services. Isn't Secretary Gates' suggestion here addressing some of those problems? I mean, won't this actually lead to improvements?

ZWERDLING: Well, here again, there have been numerous investigations in recent years saying here is the problem in mental health. Remember in 2007, there was the Dole-Shalala Commission.

RAZ: Yeah. Right.

ZWERDLING: There was the American Psychology Association report. There's was Defense Department report all said there is a terrible shortage of mental specialists. They said that there is high burnout rate among mental health specialists. It's getting hard to recruit new mental health specialists in the military.

RAZ: Danny, how much progress has the military made since this, for example, or other blue ribbon panels that have been put together in the last couple of years?

ZWERDLING: Not much. A little. They've hired more mental health specialists. They have started trying to streamline some of the programs for getting mental health services. But compared to the problem and the demand, I mean the Army's most recent study suggests that more than 25 percent of all the troops coming back have symptoms of serious mental health problems.

RAZ: The Washington Post reported today on emails between Hasan and a radical imam in Yemen about the possibility of making financial transfers between the two. Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters, quote, "there are some who are reluctant to call it terrorism, but there is significant evidence that it is."

ZWERDLING: I've talked to all kinds of psychiatrists who've worked with Nidal Hasan, were privy to what went on about him in meetings and his records, and they all say that this appears to be a longed troubled guy and he sees Islam as an avenue to act out on, but not a terrorist linked to anybody, just somebody in his own troubled world.

RAZ: That's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling.

Danny, thanks so much.

ZWERDLING: Thank you, Guy.

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