Psychological Warfare

The U.S. army needs more mental-health professionals to deal with the strain of two wars. Is this why it ignored repeated warnings about Nadal Hasan?

The notion that political correctness facilitated the homicidal rampage of Maj. Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood is not merely the preferred theory of the right-wing. It is becoming the prevailing narrative and the thrust of news reports congressional inquiry, categorizing and summing up the horrific event for many Americans. And there may have been such political correctness at fault, creating an ideological blind-spot and contributing to a dereliction of duty and vigilance. If such institutional, self-imposed blindness did prevent preemptive action, it must be swiftly recognized and addressed.

But there is another plausible factor that much of the Right has not been so eager to appropriate and promote. Despite the pomp and pageantry bestowed upon American soldiers and the pledges of President Obama, U.S. troops are still subjected to substandard medical care, especially when it comes to mental-health. And though Hasan had committed multiple and serious breaches of professionalism and judgment, the military continued to offer his services to the most mentally battered of troops.

The broader context to that decision is a record number of soldier suicides and the military's acknowledgement that it suffers a shortage of mental-health practitioners. In fact, Hasan was to assist the army's ambitious plan to treat (or patch-up) U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Did the military continue to tolerate and try to cope with Hasan's obvious faults due to its overextension and inability to keep up with the demands of two wars?

"As commander in chief, there is no greater honor, but also no greater responsibility for me than to make sure the extraordinary men and women in uniform are properly cared for and that their safety and security when they are at home is provided for," said Obama, shortly after the Fort Hood slaughter. But the fact that military officials put traumatized troops in the hands of a psychologically turbulent Hasan-who received a dismal review at Walter Reed-is a potential indicator that care remains deficient. That report on Hasan cited "serious concerns" regarding his "professionalism and work ethic" and "a pattern of poor judgment and a lack of professionalism." Hasan was "counseled for inappropriately discussing religious topics with his assigned patients" and "required a period of in-program remediation when he was discovered to have not documented appropriately an ER encounter with a homicidal patient who subsequently eloped from the ER."

Amazingly enough, in light of those concerns, the report concluded that Hasan was competent enough to deliver safe care. And he was subsequently found fit for deployment to a war-zone. If one of the military's motivations in retaining Hasan was an ability to process more health claims, then such a bargaining constitutes another kind of dereliction of duty and vigilance.

According to an army survey last year, one in three soldiers say they can't reach a counselor when they need to. The data also shows the military lacks the personel required to address the health-care needs of veterans. The Government Accountability Office found that, even though the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has increased its processing of disability claims, a serious backlog persists. The number of initial disability claims that the VA completes annually increased about 60 percent from 1999 to 2008-from about 458,000 to about 729,000. But even so, the number of pending claims also increased to 65 percent to about 343,000. And this backlog is expected to get worse. The VA anticipates that the number of reopened claims will increase as current disability benefit recipients-many of whom suffer from chronic progressive ailments such as diabetes, mental illness and cardiovascular disabilities-submit claims for increased benefits as they age and their conditions worsen, said the GAO report.

The Hasan episode is another factor challenging prewar claims that America could easily absorb the cost and demands of fighting a war on two fronts. Those claims were often fanciful, conflicting with more serious studies that raised cautions, such as a February 2003 report co-sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the James A. Baker III institute for Public Policy of Rice University, which found that Iraq's oil revenue would not suffice in covering the cost of stabilizing and rebuilding that country. The test of time has disproved much of the other facile promotion of the wars.

 

Ximena Ortiz is a freelance journalist.