Hamilton Legal Mental Health in the Military

The Fort Hood shooting that took place April 2 has left many open doors to debate about mental health and the military. In light of recent developments on these topics, many lawyers currently work to defend soldiers who have violent outbursts due to conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). No one is making such a defense for the Fort Hood shooter, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, who killed three people, as well as himself, and wounded 16. Mental health issues may not be the only reason behind violent outbursts at military bases and at Fort Hood specifically. On November 5, 2009, Major Nidal Malik Hasan killed 12 unarmed soldiers and one civilian and wounded 30 other soldiers and two police officers. A Senate report referred to this event as an act of terrorism. Fort Hood’s General Milley insisted that it did not appear to be related to terrorism. On the day of the attack, Specialist Lopez walked into one building, entered a vehicle and then proceeded to fire a .45 caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol. Afterwards, he walked into another building and opened fire again. When a military police officer approached him, he put his hands up but then reached under his jacket. The officer pulled out her weapon, at which point Specialist Lopez fired his gun at his head, taking his own life. Instead of terrorism, mental health is the topic of discussion when it comes to determining why this horrible attack occurred. The military must enact stricter laws for both of these issues in order to prevent future shootings. Therapists had evaluated Specialist Lopez for PTSD, though they had not diagnosed him yet. Such evidence could lead to the conclusion that PTSD was responsible but many disagree. A Medal of Honor recipient who has battled PTSD, Dakota Meyer claimed, “PTSD does not put you in the mind set to go out and kill innocent people.”

Meyer does have a point. Specialist Lopez has received treatment for mental conditions other than PTSD, specifically depression, anxiety and insomnia, but they are not related to his time spent overseas in Iraq or Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. General Milley announced, “We have strong evidence that he had a medical history that indicates an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition…we believe that to be the fundamental underlying causal factor.”

Instead of assessing soldiers’ mental conditions after assignments, the military should assess soldiers’ mental conditions beforehand. Of course, the law must play a role in mandating such procedures in order to better enforce their need since failure to properly consider a soldier’s psychological state can lead to such terrible outcomes such as the Fort Hood shooting. The Military Medical Standards for Enlistment and Commission includes mental health conditions; either a historical record of disorders or current disorders with psychotic features can disqualify someone from service, as can mood or behavioral disorders. Since the military attributes Specialist Lopez’s mental condition not to PTSD but to a history of mental disorder, the Fort Hood shooting demonstrates that the current mental health standards are not sufficient. Either the definitions for certain disorders are too vague or examiners do not focus enough on them,

perhaps preferring to focus on physical health. The military must examine how to better determine

mental health adequacy for military qualification and update its laws accordingly.

Some might claim that had the military discovered Special Lopez’s psychological problems beforehand and thus disqualified him would not have prevented the shooting from occurring but merely from occurring in a military setting. While such a claim does have merit, I would argue that involvement in military actions, especially in places like Iraq or the Sinai Peninsula, might exacerbate a person’s pre-existing mental health conditions. I am not a psychologist, so I cannot make this point definitively, but I would be very curious to see the results of such an experiment. Regarding proper responses to shooters, General Milley remarked about the female officer who confronted Specialist Lopez: “She did exactly what we would expect of U.S. Army military police.” I am sure she did follow protocol, but the fact that a massacre occurred twice at the same military base demonstrates a failure on that protocol’s part. New laws must address the most effective ways to respond to shooters before innocent lives are lost. The current dilemma is not only present in military scenes but elsewhere as well. These laws should also apply to various different environments, such as schools and public venues.

Contact Sara Sirota at [email protected].