By David Vergun
Army News Service
WASHINGTON, April 4, 2014 – The Army has done a great deal since the tragedies at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 to track the insider threat, “but something happened, something went wrong, and we need to know what that was," Army Secretary John M. McHugh told lawmakers yesterday.
McHugh was responding to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding the April 2 shootings at Fort Hood that left four dead, including the alleged gunman, Army Spc. Ivan Antonio Lopez.
After Lopez killed three fellow soldiers, he committed suicide. Sixteen other soldiers were injured, three critically.
Fort Hood was the scene of another mass shooting in November 2009, when then-Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and injured others.
Behavioral health screenings done at least annually and more often when soldiers deploy are among the proactive measures the Army uses to detect possible insider threats. Those screenings could point to tendencies towards violence, McHugh said.
McHugh explained to lawmakers that there are several types of behavioral health assessment "touch points." Assessments are conducted for soldiers 180 days prior to deployment, within 90 days when they get to the deployment theater, 30 days after redeployment, and then 90 days after redeployment. All soldiers also get an annual screening, irrespective of their deployment status.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who also testified at the hearing, added that the number of behavior health counselors and screenings has increased by about 150 percent over the last five years. "We've made some really good progress here," he added.
McHugh pledged that Army officials will examine the latest tragedy and learn from it. "If we failed in some way against our current policies, we need to be honest with ourselves and with you and hold ourselves accountable,” he told the Senate panel. “But if we identify new challenges, new threats we hadn't recognized before, we have to put into place programs to respond to them."
Odierno agreed that finding insider threats is challenging, and he pointed out what he called "the biggest problem we have."
That problem, he said, is balancing the need to share information with commanders and the chain of command, while also protecting an individual's right to privacy. "It's a real dilemma," the general said.
Without knowing about insider threats, commanders and others in the chain of command don't know when a problem exists, Odierno added.
"So the secretary and I are really doing the best we can to come up with processes that allow us to share information," he said, "because in a lot of cases, that's the problem. There is some limitation to what we can do. And we're trying to do the best we can."
Soldiers might not come forward with mental health problems if they know their privacy concerns are not going to be addressed. This attaches a stigma to the notion of seeking care.
"We are doing everything we can to de-stigmatize seeking help," McHugh said.
Odierno held out a solution, suggesting that the Army, along with members of Congress, can work together on creating ways for better information sharing to have "the ability to really understand when soldiers are having problems," while also addressing the need for confidentiality. He pointed out that the alleged shooter was screened and was receiving counseling.
"So in a lot of ways, the system worked,” the general said. “But obviously, it didn't work completely, because in the end, he made some decisions that obviously cost other people's lives."
McHugh added: "We've really increased our behavioral health encounters in the Army and we view that as positive. Folks are reaching out more. They're asking for help more voluntarily. But then, sometimes things happen, like happened [April 2], that we fail to understand.
"So we're trying to keep as close a watch on our soldiers as we can," he continued, "but clearly, we believe there are more things we can do to identify problems in the earliest stages of their development."
Odierno added that the Army has recently put behavioral specialists into brigades, something not done before. However, he noted, some soldiers would rather get behavioral health treatment off-post to avoid the possibility of being identified by their unit as someone with a mental health issue.
Funding off-post behavioral health could be something the Army will look into, he added.
Behavioral health issues are "something we're going to have to deal with for a very long time, and that's a consequence of 13 years of war,” Odierno said. “And so, we're going to have to make sure that we have the systems in place to do this."