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An Iraq war veteran opened fire Wednesday at a military base in Texas, a shooting that left four dead and more than a dozen wounded. It’s the latest in a string of violent incidents at military installations involving personnel struggling with mental health issues. Kojo chats with Craig Whitlock, a reporter at The Washington Post, for an update on the latest at Fort Hood.
- Craig Whitlock Pentagon and national security reporter, The Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the longevity gap between America's wealthy and its poor and why life expectancy is actually declining in some areas. But first, less than a day after Army Specialist Ivan Lopez killed three people and injured nine at Texas' Fort Hood army base, military officials are facing an all-too-familiar scramble to figure out what when wrong at the country's largest military base.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe rampage was the third major gun attack at a U.S. military installation in five years and the second mass shooting at Fort Hood where 13 people died in 2009. Now, military personnel are, once again, facing questions about security and stability on military bases. What's being done to safeguard military posts from insider attack? How can soldiers struggling with mental health issues be better identified?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd what support services are needed to prevent violence among those struggling with post traumatic stress after deployment. Joining us with the latest on this unfolding story is Craig Whitlock, Pentagon and National Security reporter with The Washington Post. Craig joins is by phone. Thank you so much for joining us, Craig.
MR. CRAIG WHITLOCKSure thing, Kojo.
NNAMDICraig, police spent the night searching Army Specialist Ivan Lopez's apartment. Do we have any new information about Lopez or his motives for the shooting, either from the investigation or from his wife?
WHITLOCKWe have some new investigation about Specialist Lopez and his background. We don't have any new information about a motive yet. We hope to learn more later today. The commanding general at Fort Hood is supposed to brief reporters later this afternoon. What we do know is that Specialist Lopez was a very experience soldier, in the words of Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff.
WHITLOCKHe spent nine years in the Puerto Rico National Guard and then a few years ago, he enlisted full-time in the Army. He had two overseas deployments, one to the Sinai peninsula in Egypt when he was a guardsman and then in 2011, at the end of the Iraq War, he deployed to Iraq for four months as a military truck driver and was one of the last U.S. troops to withdraw from that country at the end of the war.
WHITLOCKSince then, he's been stationed at Fort Bliss and then, in February, he transferred to Fort Hood in Texas.
NNAMDIWhat do we know about what Army Secretary John McHugh testified in the Senate hearing on Capitol Hill today indicating that he had been undergoing treatment for depression and anxiety.
WHITLOCKThat's correct. Now we do know that he was receiving treatment for mental health issues. What those were and how severe those were we're still learning more details. Secretary McHugh and commanders at Fort Hood said, as you indicated, he was depressed, anxiety. We don't know many more details. They said he was being prescribed Ambien, which is, as you know, is a pretty common medication for people who -- trying to sleep.
WHITLOCKBut it didn't seem to affect his job in terms of his status. He was, you know, still active duty with his unit. We do know from Secretary McHugh that he had been seen by an Army mental health professional last month and was not considered to be a risk of violence or a threat to himself or others. So, you know, he was seen recently, but was not considered a threat at that point, this is according to that the Army's telling us.
NNAMDIOkay. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Craig Whitlock. He is Pentagon and national security reporter for The Washington Post -- about yesterday's shootings at Fort Hood and about Ivan Lopez in particular. If you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. How can we better safeguard our military posts from insider or outsider attacks? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDICraig, Lopez was reportedly new to Fort Hood. But do we have any indication about whether or not he know his victims?
WHITLOCKWe don't have any indication of that yet, Kojo. You know, maybe we'll find out more this afternoon. You know, he did shoot into two different buildings, according to Fort Hood. He went into one building, a medical brigade building, then went into another one that's sort of a motor pool area. So it wasn't just one location and so he clearly wasn't just targeting one person.
WHITLOCKWhether they were people known to him or his unit or this was -- he was just, you know, a random thing, you know, we don't know yet. I think we'll learn more about that this afternoon. You bring up a good question as to, you know, what more can be done on a situation like this to prevent or deter these kind of insider attacks in the military.
WHITLOCKAnd, you know, I want to remind your listeners, you know, certainly the military has been doing a lot to tighten up access to bases and posts like Fort Hood, but Fort Hood has 50,000 people on it on any given day. There are requirements that, you know, you can't carry a weapon openly. They have to be stored, if it's your service weapon.
WHITLOCKIf it's a personal weapon, you have to register it with the post. There's no indication that Specialist Lopez. It sounds like he concealed it. So unless he was going to be randomly checked, there really wasn't much of a way for him to be spotted carrying this 45-caliber Smith & Wesson semi-automatic pistol.
NNAMDIWell, there are moves afoot on Capitol Hill to make sure that he and presumably others who do not have any form of mental illness or disability are allowed to carry weapons on base. Following the shootings at the Navy Yard in September, Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas introduced legislation that would allow service members and federal civilians to carry personal weapons on military installations.
NNAMDIHow are legislators and military personnel working through this classic gun rights battle going on on military installations?
WHITLOCKWell, that's a real critical question, Kojo, and there have been some changes in the law to that. As of last year, Congress did pass a law, which was signed by the president, which now essentially gives mental health professionals in the military the obligation to inform commanders and others if someone under their care in the military is deemed to be a potential risk to themselves or others.
WHITLOCKSo there's an awful lot of people, there's an awful lot of troops who receive mental health counseling, you know, so that, in itself, is not an uncommon thing. But if the psychiatrist says this person is of more concern, they're required or obligated to notify a commanding officer who can then start asking questions about, you know, do you have weapons at home, you know, we want to take actions to prevent this person from acquiring a weapon.
WHITLOCKThat said, in this case, the Army Secretary John McHugh told Congress this morning that, you know, again, Specialist Lopez had been seen by a mental health professional last month and was, you know, labeled as someone who is not a risk to himself or others. Now, that's going to lead to questions as to how good of an exam was that, how thorough was it. But hopefully, we'll find some more details about that.
WHITLOCKBut, you know, he had been seen and he was not considered a risk so, you know, no movements, presumably, were taken to limit his access to a weapon.
NNAMDICraig, were mental health services at Fort Hood reevaluated or maybe changes after the mass shootings in 2009 by Army Major Nidal Hasan or after the Navy Yard shootings last year?
WHITLOCKWell, absolutely. Since the Hasan case, I mean, I think throughout the country, in particularly with the ongoing war in Afghanistan where more soldiers and other troops coming back, you know, the military is constantly reevaluating their mental health services. And as well, that's where this law came from last year in terms of access to weapons.
WHITLOCKYou know, they're trying to balance that line between, you know, people who, you know, have the same rights as anybody else in the country, Second Amendments rights access to weapons, but, you know, and have privacy rights, but, you know, if they are at all seen as some sort of potential risk because of their health then that's supposed to trigger other -- excuse me, that's not a good word, but to prompt other steps to be taken to safeguard others.
WHITLOCKSo, you know, that's a fine line the military's working through and will be really interesting to find out more details of what exactly the state of specialist Lopez's mental health was, how serious it was, how long it had been going on. You know, it's interesting, this morning, Secretary McHugh and Gen. Odierno were saying that, you know, while Lopez had deployed to Iraq, there was no indication, no evidence that he had suffered any sort of traumatic brain injury, any combat injuries, anything like that that required treatment.
WHITLOCKNow, that said, officials at Fort Hood said he self-reported some kind of head injury and it almost sounded like they were a little skeptical of this, that maybe he had reported some problems, but they didn't find evidence of it. And there was -- he had not been classified or evaluated or diagnosed as a PTSD, traumatic stress disorder, but they were reexamining that.
WHITLOCKSo clearly, they were evaluating him, but did not see anything serious or eminent that would cause them to take additional steps in terms of preventing access to weapons or keep him out work.
NNAMDICraig, after the Navy Yard shootings last year, the Defense Department said it would reduce the number of employees who hold security clearances by at least 10 percent and vowed to overhaul how it screens employees. Has that happened?
WHITLOCKThey have started to do that. I mean, that takes a while. Now, the Navy Yard shooting, you have to understand, that was a contractor who had access to a base.
WHITLOCKYou know, here at Fort Hood, of course, it's an active duty soldier. I mean, that's the kind of person, you know, due to the very nature of his job, he's going to be going on post and unless something, you know, pretty serious happens in his job performance or his health, you know, he's going to be, you know, he's gonna have to do his job. You know, these are armed troops, you know, when they're working.
WHITLOCKAnd, you know, unless there's a good reason to keep them off post or to deny him weapons, they're not going to do that.
NNAMDIOnto Jennifer in Purcellville, Virginia. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFERHi. My name is Jennifer Hefron (sp?) and I have been working as a mental health advocate over the years and I've noticed that there've been recurring kind of seem of this sort of violence that happens during the month of April. We had Columbine, Oklahoma City, Waco, Virginia Tech, the Boston Marathon and I really wondered is there some sort of -- is it a freaky coincidence or is there really something that's going on here?
JENNIFERAnd what can we do, other than limiting gun access, how can we get folks better treatment so that they -- so these sorts of incidences don't happen?
NNAMDII have no idea whether April has any particular significance at all and I'm not sure Craig Whitlock does either, but I'll let Craig speak for himself.
WHITLOCKYeah, I would put that in the freaky coincidence category. You know, I will say that as we reported, Specialist Lopez had previously been at Fort Bliss Texas as of last fall and he had been -- people we've spoken to said he had some stress in his life. His mother had recently passed away. He was maybe being treated for depression a bit, but he was not considered a risk to himself or others.
WHITLOCKThat apparently did not enter into why he was transferred to Fort Hood. That was a normal change of station in his duty assignment. So it sounds like the Army had been observing him as they would any soldier, but, again, it seems, going back some months, they did not consider him any sort of danger to himself or other people. Now, what changed we don't know. We don't know what the motive is.
WHITLOCKI think we'll find out more in the coming hours or days, but right now, we just don’t.
NNAMDIFinal question, Craig, do we have any new information about how the victims who survived are faring?
WHITLOCKWell, there are a few in critical condition. They're receiving care at the hospitals there. You know, they have very good medical care in Fort Hood and in Killeen so I'm sure they're doing everything they can, but we have not heard any updates in the past few hours.
NNAMDICraig Whitlock is Pentagon and national security reporter with the Washington Post. He joined us by phone from the Pentagon. Craig, thank you so much for joining us.
WHITLOCKSure thing. Take care.
NNAMDIShould remind our listeners that closer to home, naval officer Mark Mayo is being remembered tonight in a candlelight vigil for his heroic actions last week at the naval base in Norfolk. Mayo was killed last Monday by a civilian truck driver who passed through security at Norfolk Naval Station boarded the peer side destroyer Mahan and wrested a gun from a female sailor standing guard on the deck. WAMU 88.5 news will be covering that story tonight. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, the longevity gap between America's wealthy and its poor and why life expectancy is actually declining in some areas. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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