Fort Hood: A Tragic Reminder of the Military's Mental Health Crisis

Sergeant First Class Erick Rodriguez stands guard before a news conference at Fort Hood, Texas April 2, 2014. (Reuters/Erich Schlegel)

Fort Hood: A Tragic Reminder of the Military's Mental Health Crisis

Anja Niedringhaus was killed and her colleague wounded on Friday when an Afghan policeman opened fire on their convoy

Ivan Lopez, the man military officials say opened fire yesterday at Fort Hood, Texas, killing three and wounding sixteen, reportedly suffered from depression and anxiety, and had trouble sleeping. Doctors prescribed him a number of drugs, and evaluated him for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Secretary of the Army John McHugh, who spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, nothing on his record or in a psychiatric evaluation last month indicated he would harm himself or others.

If the shooting shocks and discomforts, the fact that more than half of all service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say their mental or physical health is worse after their deployment should, too. Lopez's act of mass violence distinguishes him from his fellow service members; still, he appears to have shared with many others the experience of coming home to a country unprepared to meet his needs. Of the 2.6 million men and women sent to Iraq and Afghanistan or to supporting operations overseas, more than half report that the government is failing to meet theirs. Nearly 60 percent say the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing only a fair or poor job. And one in two know another service member who, like Lopez, committed or attempted suicide.

Since at least 2008, more American soldiers have killed themselves at home than have died abroad. The VA has responded by expanding its mental health funding and adding thousands of people to its mental health staff. But less than a quarter of veterans are enrolled in the agency's health care system, and more than a third of enrolled veterans who sought psychiatric appointments in 2013 faced at least a two week wait.

"Frankly, we have got to do more," said Vermont Senator and Veterans Affairs committee chair Bernie Sanders said Thursday on MSNBC. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of men and women. So if we're serious about reaching out and helping those people, we've got to provide the resources to do that."

Doing "more" doesn't only mean boosting the VA budget. Veterans experience poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and improper foreclosures more acutely than Americans overall, meaning that slashing the safety net, failing to extend unemployment insurance, and other moves towards austerity create extra challenges for veterans grappling with the aftershocks of service and navigating reentry to civilian life.

Congress had an opportunity in February to act on one of the largest legislative packages for veterans in decades, which Sanders sponsored. But Senate Republicans killed the measure, saying it was too expensive, never mind that the $21 billion price tag would have been paid for largely by the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan. For perspective, $21 billion represents about .6 percent of government spending in 2013.

Montana Senator John Walsh, a Democrat and combat Veteran, introduced legislation last week with a variety of measures directed at preventing veteran suicide. The bill would give service members leaving active duty fifteen years to receive care from the VA, significantly extending the current window that, at five years, is sometimes shorter than the onset of PTSD or other mental illnesses. The legislation also creates incentives for mental health care professionals to work within the VA system, streamlines electronic health records and prescription protocols, and requires the Defense Department and VA to review mental health care programs annually. When asked about the cost of his legislation, as Republicans surely will, Walsh told CNN, "that is the cost of war."

Lopez's mental health issues may have had nothing to do with his military service, and it would be a mistake to project his crimes onto other soldiers seeking treatment. The point remains that lawmakers spent trillions taking violence abroad. It's hard to deny that some of it is coming home again, in the form of suicide, domestic abuse, and in the daily violence of homelessness and unemployment. It's simple enough to tally what price Congress thought worthy for the armored vehicles and the aircraft carriers and the missiles used for our recent wars. What about the people?

© 2023 The Nation