Investigators say an argument may have been the catalyst for a shooting by a troubled Iraq veteran that left him and three other soldiers dead at Fort Hood in Texas.
Officials are investigating the possibility that Army Specialist Ivan A. Lopez, 34, clashed with at least one fellow serviceman before the attack, base commander Lieutenant General Mark Milley said at a news briefing yesterday. He said it might have been a “trigger event.”
“There may have been a verbal altercation with another soldier or soldiers, and it’s a strong possibility that that, in fact, immediately preceded this shooting,” Milley said. “We do not have that definitively at this point. But we have strong indications of that.”
Lopez’s medical history, which included being treated for depression and anxiety, appears to be an “underlying causal factor,” he said.
Sixteen people were injured in the rampage, which happened about 4 p.m. local time April 2 in a medical area at the U.S. Army base. Coming less than five years after an officer killed 13 people there as revenge for America’s wars, the slayings drew attention to the military’s handling of the psychologically wounded.
The soldier was a married Puerto Rico native who had been prescribed medications for depression, anxiety and sleeping. He was being evaluated for a claim of post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury, Milley said.
Lopez’s records showed no wounds, no “direct involvement in combat” and no “injury that might lead us to further investigate a battle-related” traumatic brain injury, Army Secretary John McHugh said yesterday at a Senate hearing in Washington.
A psychiatrist last month found no indication that Lopez showed “any sign of likely violence, either to himself or to others,” McHugh said. “No suicidal ideation.”
Mental health professionals said Lopez’s struggles do little to explain the massacre and whether the Army could have prevented it.
“Millions of people -- and millions of people in the military -- have sleep disturbances and have mood disorders, and that tells us absolutely nothing about whether those particular people are at risk for these kinds of really unusual acts,” said Terry Schell, a psychologist at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, California, who researches post-traumatic stress among veterans. “Those just aren’t associated with violence.”
About 936,000 people serving active duty in the military were diagnosed with at least one mental illness between 2001 and 2011, according to an August report by the Congressional Research Service. Military spending for mental health was $994 million in 2012, up from $468 million five years earlier.
In recent years, the military has increased attention to soldiers’ emotional well being, said retired Army Brigadier General Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist.
“There may not have been anything that anyone could have done to prevent this tragedy,” she said. “We’ve just got to understand that war changes people. Many thrive when they come back and many struggle, but we owe them our best.”
Fort Hood, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of Austin, houses about 41,000 troops and is home to the Army’s 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry divisions. Lopez came there from Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas.
He served four months in Iraq in 2011 after joining the Army in 2008, McHugh said. A summary of his service released by the Pentagon listed at least 20 awards, including three for good conduct.
He spent 11 years in the Puerto Rico National Guard, during which he was deployed for one year to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
“He was an excellent soldier,” National Guard Adjutant General Juan Medina Lamela said on Telemundo.
Lopez grew up in Guayanilla, on the island’s south coast, the Spanish-language El Nuevo Dia newspaper reported.
Guayanilla Mayor Edgardo Arlequin, who directed the high-school band in which Lopez was a percussionist, told the newspaper he “was a really easygoing kid whose parents were very dedicated to him.”
A neighbor, Aide Merlo Irizarry, described him to the newspaper as “very loving toward his mother,” and said her death in October “hurt him deeply.”
The shooting he committed was the second at a major U.S. military base since September, when Aaron Alexis, a former Navy reservist who believed he was under the control of electromagnetic waves killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard.
In 2009, Major Nidal Hasan, a military psychiatrist, killed 13 people at Fort Hood and wounded more than 30 after becoming radicalized by an al-Qaeda terrorist based in Yemen. Hasan, later sentenced to death, attacked while yelling “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for God is Great.
A 2013 law authorized defense health professionals to ask troops whether they own or plan to acquire a gun if there’s reason to believe a soldier might commit suicide or harm others, said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Defense Department spokesman. Officials didn’t know whether Lopez was asked, Warren said in a briefing with reporters at the Pentagon yesterday.
Mental-health professionals are hard pressed to discern violent tendencies, said Craig Bryan, a psychologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and executive director of the National Center for Veterans Studies. Patients may keep plans secret or act impulsively, he said.
“It’s remarkably difficult to predict if and when someone is going to die by suicide or if they are going to be aggressive toward others,” he said.