A year after the Fort Hood community experienced a second active-shooter rampage, it remains difficult to put into words and comprehend why such acts of violence occur in tight-nit military communities. As soldiers, families, and Texas lawmakers gather to honor and pay respect to the three service members killed and 12 wounded in last year’s April 2 mass shooting by Spc. Ivan Lopez — who took his own life after being confronted by military police — there is still no indication that this violent act could have been prevented by identifying early warning signs.
A community still emotionally raw from the Nidal Hasan shooting that occurred in November 2009, the second rampage came nearly nine months after Hasan’s conviction and death sentence.
These two horrific mass shootings are the most publicized incidents of violent crime at a stateside military post, yet there’s vast argument among service members and media alike regarding violent behavior in the services and if the media’s speculation as to why it occurs is an overplayed narrative. For years, news organizations’ have capitalized on market research indicating their audience’s hunger for crime and violence reporting. The popular trope “if it bleeds, it leads” is intended to feed the masses, but the post-traumatic stress-induced, war-torn, and mentally mad veteran narrative is nearly the first assumption digested as fact.
Despite Fort Hood’s quality training areas, comprehensive base resources, legendary Army units, and genuine Texas hospitality, it’s often pegged by soldiers Army-wide as a less than desirable duty station due to the perception of ongoing crime and the idea that it’s a black hole where careers get stuck. “Everyone could tell a story of something bad that happened at Hood,” David Green told Task & Purpose, a former Fort Hood senior noncommissioned officer who spent 11 years at the installation.
Green explained that even people who had never been there found reason to bash the base. “Even the ones who did bash it would usually admit they had personal issues with the place, such as one bad supervisor, a divorce, a landlord issue.”
Just today, April 1, Fort Hood received a call notifying the installation that a soldier allegedly issued a verbal threat. A suspect was taken into custody, but rumors spread rapidly across the Internet about an active shooter on base.
Fort Hood is now the largest active-duty armored post comprised of nearly 400,000 soldiers, civilian employees, families, and retirees in the Killeen-Temple-Fort Hood metro area. The base saw 26 violent crimes each year in 2012 and 2013, including aggravated assault, child pornography, kidnapping, homicide, rape, attempted rapes and robbery, according to Fort Hood Herald staff reporter Rose Thayer. In 2015, the community has already experienced soldiers dying from apparent gunshot wounds — which still remain under investigation — and a soldier accused in a triple-murder suicide. And last month, Sgt.1st Class Gregory McQueen, the one-time coordinator of a sexual assault response program at Fort Hood, was found guilty of running a prostitution ring.
Yet, even though there was a rise in violent crime at Fort Hood in 2014, Thayer wrote, “the base stayed about 86 percent below the average of the surrounding communities since 2012.”
“I think because so many outlets covered the mass shootings here, they continue to receive news alerts from Fort Hood, and therefore are more likely to cover those crime stories they see released,” said Thayer in an interview with Task & Purpose. She explained a good example of the media’s knee-jerk reaction to cover those stories of violence is the June 2014 shooting in an off-post housing area patrolled by Fort Hood police.
“Just Googling [the incident] shows you how many outlets reported that shots had been reported. But once they realized there was no murder, many of them disappeared,” she said. “The Herald was the only outlet to cover the Article 32 hearing for the soldier charged with the shooting.”
Therefore, rather than being a military base plagued by high rates of violence, Fort Hood may be more susceptible to national attention compared to non-military communities when an isolated violent crime does take place.
After last year’s Fort Hood shooting, Marine Corps veteran Thomas Gibbons-Neff wrote an opinion piece in the The Daily Beast pointing to the divide between the tragic, isolated shooting and the media’s PTSD-fueled narrative. He wrote, “Even in the absence of any evidence that the shooter, Ivan Lopez, suffered from PTSD, news networks let it dribble out from the beginnings and ends of their sentences. The Huffington Post, awarded a Pulitzer for its work on veterans in 2012, used PTSD-related violence to build an horribly inaccurate map that portrayed veterans as an inherently violent population, when it isn’t (that graphic was later retracted).” His piece also pointed to McClatchy’s PTSD hot-zone locator map, “likening veterans to criminals.”
The media’s quickness to seek answers to a violent, tragic event is apparent in the still-developing story and devastating Germanwings Flight 9525 crash in the French Alps. The German co-pilot who deliberately crashed an Airbus A320 into a mountainside, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, even informing the airline’s parent company of his condition years prior. However, painting a conclusive picture by applying the actions of a sociopath and mass murderer to someone suffering from depression perpetuates the stigma associated with common mental health issues. But, depression does not equal murderous intent to others.
However, while the media pushes the PTSD narrative as the standard motive behind any act of violence by a veteran, there is some truth to a decrease in morale across the military.
“I’ve experienced many situations like this over the course of my career,” said an Air Force tactical air control party, or TACP, senior noncommissioned officer who has deployed with soldiers from multiple Army bases, and asked to remain anonymous for this interview. “The toxic leadership boils down to lack of integrity, lack of enforcing standards, and a selfish approach to leading, typically because there is a political agenda motivating them,” he said.
“Perhaps the most surprising indication of the decline in morality that has occurred throughout our Army reflects in the extremely disturbing trend of moral and ethical failures of senior leaders,” wrote Maj. Joshua Gloneck in a 2013 article for Military Review. “Although the vast majority of senior officers hold themselves to high standards, the recent rash of inappropriate conduct has fostered a perception that our senior officer corps suffers from a sense of entitlement.”
A recent Army Times article echoed this sentiment, reporting that the Army has relieved 129 Army brigade and battalion officers since 2003, and seven general officers have been relieved from their position since 2008, for misconduct ranging from extramarital affairs to failing to properly address a sexual assault claim in the command to misuse of government funds.
But, while a decrease in morale may ripple through the ranks, does it lead to crime or violence? Army researchers have long raised that question as well.
In 2010, the Army hired anthropologist David Matsuda to advise U.S. commanders in Iraq why nearly 30 soldiers had committed or attempted suicide during the drawdown efforts. A more complicated story emerged on top of initial Army investigations: In addition to serious problems in the soldiers’ personal lives, the victims also had a leader who made their life hell. Mastuda’s report concluded that toxic leadership had played a role in eight soldier suicides.
Toxic command climates have also directly contributed to the military’s high number of sexual assaults and sexual violence among the services. Administering anonymous command climate surveys is just one way the military is seeking to weed out toxic leadership, but many feel there’s still a long way to go.
“When you display the behaviors of taking bribes and scamming the military out of millions of dollars, or sexually harassing or assaulting those who you are charged with protecting, or something as simple as falsifying and pencil whipping training documents, then you have to expect that those in lower positions will pick and choose which rules they want to follow,” said the Air Force TACP senior NCO.
Picking and choosing which rules to follow, compounded with potential serious mental health illnesses that go undetected or untreated, and a poorly pointed moral compass has had military leaders continually searching for answers and solutions to these problems.