Major Hasan's turmoil

Our view: Why did the Army miss signs of the Fort Hood shooter's troubled mind?

November 10, 2009

Perhaps no one could have anticipated that the stresses of his job as an Army psychiatrist counseling traumatized veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled with his own conflicted feelings about Islamic terrorism and dread of being deployed to a war zone, would result in Maj. Nidal Hasan standing accused of killing 13 and wounding 38 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood Army base in Texas last week. The factors that cause certain men and women to snap under pressure are as unpredictable as they are devastating to the individuals involved and those around them. But in hindsight, it is clear the Army ignored multiple signs that something was amiss.

Over the weekend, National Public Radio reported that Dr. Hasan was put on probation at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, where he earned a medical degree, and that he was later disciplined for proselytizing about his Muslim faith with patients and colleagues.

Later, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where Dr. Hasan served before being sent to Fort Hood, his co-workers reportedly tried several times tried to warn superiors his loyalty might be in question after he praised suicide bombers. On one occasion, he launched into a rambling discourse on the Quran's injunction to kill infidels during what was supposed to be a talk about treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

Moreover, the FBI apparently knew at least six months ago that someone using Dr. Hasan's name was posting blogs on an Islamic Web site linked to a suspected al-Qaeda associate. While at Walter Reed, Dr. Hasan attended a mosque in nearby northern Virginia where two of the Sept. 11 attackers also attended services, and where the FBI had investigated a former imam of the mosque as a possible co-conspirator in those attacks.

Dr. Hasan's relatives, who are of Palestinian descent, said he was deeply disturbed by stories he heard from patients returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom suffered grievous physical and psychological wounds. They also said he was upset and angry over what they called harassment by other soldiers because of his Muslim heritage, and they reported that he became increasingly isolated from his fellows.

In retrospect, there were enough early indicators of Major Hasan's troubled state of mind to have prompted the Army to consider whether he might pose a danger to himself or others. At the very least, he never should have been allowed to counsel soldiers suffering from PTSD after his own mental fitness had been called into question. And his complaints of anti-Muslim harassment should also have gotten his superiors' attention.

Major Hasan had been trying to get out of the military before he was sent to war, and the Army might have imagined his recent conduct amounted to malingering. But when a soldier's job is to safeguard others' mental health, the Army can't afford to ignore the warning signs of an impending breakdown.

Readers respond
Am I the only one who sees an inherent recklessness in assigning a devout Muslim, no matter how upright and grounded he might be, to counsel soldiers traumatized by their experiences in the Iraq and Afghan wars?

I see potential danger on both sides: the military personnel who have experienced extreme violence by the most militant of the Muslims are now encouraged to confide their innermost thoughts, fears and prejudices to a man whose very name ties him to "the enemy"; and, on the other hand, a devout Muslim who hears horror story after horror story from clients emotionally if not physically scarred by people with whom he identifies.

In the best case, both Major Nidal M. Hasan and his clients were poorly served. In the worst, the Army repeatedly put volatile fuel in the same room with a match. What were they thinking?

Susan Sachs Fleishman, Baltimore

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