Thursday, April 03, 2014

Another Case of Passing the Buck?

At this point, there is much we don't know about the motives of Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, who gunned down 16 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood yesterday, killing three of them before taking his own life.

However, the Army has reported that Lopez was under treatment for depression, anxiety and other psychological issues at the time of his rampage.  We have also learned that Specialist Lopez spent four months in Iraq in 2011, but apparently never saw combat.  He spent years in the Puerto Rico National Guard before serving on active duty, first on a year-long tour in the Sinai desert in 2010, and later in the Middle East.  More recently, he was assigned as an infantryman at Fort Bliss, Texas before cross-training as a truck driver late last year.  Lopez was reassigned to Fort Hood just two months ago.

The latest mass shootings come less than five years after then-Major Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, opened fire on a crowd of soliders and civilians at a Fort Bliss mobility processing facility in November 2009.  Hasan, who had become an Islamic terrorist, killed 13 people before being captured.  He was court-martialed last year and sentenced to death.

As investigators later learned, signs of Hasan's radicalization were ignored by superiors, fearful of offending an officer of Arab descent during this era of political correctness.  Missing--or ignoring--indications of terrorist leanings or mental illness have become a recurring theme in mass shootings on military bases over the past 20 years.

Consider the most recent example: just last September, a 34-year-old former naval reservist, Aaron Alexis (who still worked as a contractor on military bases), opened fire inside a building at the Washington Navy Yard, killing 13 individuals and wounding a dozen more before being killed by police.  A subsequent probe revealed that Alexis had a long history of disturbing behavior that should have barred him from enlisting and receiving a security clearance.  From USA Today:

". by the time Alexis enlisted in the Navy in 2007, he'd already piled up a troubling and documented history of run-ins with police and neighbors and debts that he never repaid, according to the Navy's investigation.

For example, he dropped out of DeVry University in 2004, making only partial payments on several student loans. While living in Seattle, he received six traffic tickets but paid for only one before enlisting. Seattle police arrested him for shooting out the tires on a construction worker's vehicle. He told police the worker had "disrespected him," leading to a "blackout fueled by anger." Charges were dropped. Two years later, police in Bellevue, Wash., named him "an involved person" though not arrested after neighbors complained about tires being slashed on five vehicles.

In 2007, Alexis reported to Navy recruiters "no criminal activity and no indebtedness." That assurance was enough for recruiters who did not run a records check on him, the report says. An FBI report on him showed the Seattle arrest, but since there was "no adverse adjudication," Alexis was deemed "suitable for enlistment."

His problems persisted after he joined the Navy. There was an arrest and jailed in 2008 for disorderly conduct in Georgia when he broke furniture at a night club. The Navy disciplined him for being absent without leave, and the disorderly conduct charge was dismissed. A year later, the Navy disciplined him for drunken behavior and tried to kick him out. In 2010, Fort Worth police arrested him for shooting a gun at his apartment but dropped the charges."

While Alexis's superiors in the Navy Reserve were clearly aware of some of these incidents, they never suspended his security clearance, or initiated proceedings to separate him from the service.  Had they taken those steps, Alexis would have never gained access to the Navy Yard, and his victims might still be alive.

Elements of the Lopez rampage also raise questions about his suitability for service, and if commanders missed (or ignored) warning signs.  For example, Lopez had served in the Army--both on active duty and in the national guard--for almost 10 years, yet he never advanced beyond the rank of Specialist (E-4).  Were there behavior or performance issues in his past that prevented his advancement, and might have fueled his rage against other soldiers?  The Army is now looking into that matter.

Likewise, the New York Daily News reports that Lopez was "enraged" when the Army initially refused to let him attend his mother's funeral two months ago.  Normally, approval of "emergency leave" requests are virtually automatic.  The Army's reluctance to let Lopez travel to the funeral is another indicator of possible discipline or medical problems.  Eventually, the service allowed him to travel to Puerto Rico for the funeral, but gave Lopez only a 24-hour pass.  In most cases, service members are allowed to take days--or even weeks--of leave to be with their family under such circumstances.

Another unexplained event is Lopez's transfer from Fort Bliss to Fort Hood earlier this year.  At his new base, Lopez was a member of the Warrior Transition Brigade, comprised of soldiers who are exiting the service.  So far, the Army hasn't said if the specialist's psychiatric problems were serious enough for him to be discharged, though his assignment suggests he would be leaving the service in the near future.  It has been reported that Lopez sought help for his problems after arriving at Fort Hood; if there were any past signs of trouble, why didn't the process begin at Bliss and why wasn't he assigned to the transition battalion at that installation?

We also haven't heard the reason behind Lopez's MOS change from infantryman to transporter.  Many soldiers are given the chance to cross-train during their careers, but the Army hasn't said if Lopez's job switch was voluntary or involuntary.  Most of his victims were assigned to a transportation battalion and a medical unit, suggesting (perhaps) that Lopez was unhappy with his job, co-workers, treatment he was receiving--or all the above.

Authorities may conclude it was impossible to discern the shooter's intentions and prevent the latest tragedy at Fort Hood.  But if history is any judge, it may be revealed that signs were overlooked or deliberately ignored by the chain-of-command.  The military, like any bureaucracy, sometimes has a tendency to take the path of least resistance when dealing with problem children.  That's how one unit's bad egg winds up with another organization, and the can gets kicked down the road.

Lest we forget, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the horrific shooting at Fairchild AFB, Washington that provided a textbook example of these tendencies.  We've written on several occasions about a deeply disturbed airman named Dean Mellberg who had a long history of mental illness before joining the military and exhibited signs of trouble during basic training in 1992.  Mellberg's military training instructor referred him to mental health officials at Lackland AFB; they recommended an immediate discharge, but they were over-ruled by a commander who felt the airman deserved a "second chance."

Over the next two years, Mellberg displayed other warning signs, but kept getting passed through the system.  At one point, his commander decided to ship him out to another base, dumping his problem on someone else.  Eventually, Mellberg was diagnosed with a severe mental illness and discharged at Cannon AFB, New Mexico.  But they failed to warn his old installation (Fairchild) that the former airman might be dangerous.

On the afternoon of 20 June 1994, Mellberg arrived back at the base and went on a shooting spree, killing five people in the base hospital.  Only the brave actions (and incredible marksmanship) of a security policemen ended Mellberg's rampage.  Of course, the entire, terrible episode might have been prevented if various individuals in the Air Force chain had done their jobs in the first place.   

It would be an even greater tragedy if we learn that Ivan Lopez followed a path similar to Dean Mellberg.    





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