Post-military anxiety drives returning war vets at base

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KILLEEN, Texas -- Pastor Randall Wallace of the First Baptist Church has watched thousands of troops head off to war and then come home to Fort Hood, the expansive base that defines this flat patch of Texas tattoo parlors, pawn shops and vinyl-sided bungalows.

"These are heroes," he reflected, "and yet they have problems. Sometimes, it's too much alcohol. Sometimes, it's too much stress. And then they wind up in the crime section, and we're burying people," he said in the wake of Wednesday's shooting spree by a soldier, the second in five years, that left four dead and 16 injured.

For a decade, Fort Hood, which rose from cotton and corn farmlands as a training ground for World War II tank destroyers, was like a Grand Central Terminal for waves of troops heading out to Iraq and Afghanistan weekly. Men and women alike, volunteers all, deployed from this self-contained city where the streets on the base are named Hell on Wheels Avenue and Tank Destroyer Boulevard. Then they came back, many in need of counseling.

To many who live or pass through, this is a primal slice of Americana shaped by patriotism, pride and a shared sense of mission, a company town where the company is the U.S. military and the heroes are ordinary soldiers. It's the kind of town where the Taiwan Dragon Chinese restaurant, about a mile from the base, places the photos of soldiers -- not celebrities -- on its walls.

But now the wars are ending and the stress of combat and multiple deployment is being compounded or replaced by new anxieties. The number of soldiers assigned to the base has fallen from highs of more than 50,000 troops, and could continue to shrink as the Army moves away from wartime footing. And soldiers, so many who had planned to make a career in the military, are looking at an uncertain path. A local nonprofit that advocates soldiers' rights says they are coming in regularly to deal with discharges from the military that have left them with few options for work.

"I don't know what the future holds for our town," Killeen's mayor, Daniel Corbin, said.

The base, which sprawls across 340 square miles, has an annual economic impact of roughly $25 billion and has a footprint as large as the city of Dallas. About 41,000 soldiers are stationed there, and every day, thousands of civilian workers drive through its gates to work, and veterans head in to exercise at the gym or catch up with old buddies.

"When they talk about Daytona, they talk about racing," said state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, who represents the area. "When they talk about Detroit, they talk about cars. When they talk about Silicon Valley, they talk about chips. When they talk about Killeen, they talk about soldiers."

But they have often been troubled soldiers. The shooting last week brought back sickening memories of the November 2009 rampage on the base where a former Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 13 people. Most of the pain, however, plays out in private.

"Suicide, spousal abuse, sexual assault and mental health problems in general are issues that have come to the forefront in the last decade or so that my Army, in my day, did not see with this level of frequency," said Sam Floca Jr., 72, who is currently the honorary colonel of regiment at Fort Hood, an unofficial honorary title that he uses to provide a link between past generations of soldiers and current ones. "It is more acceptable to talk about mental health issues today. A soldier is not viewed as an outcast if he or she talks about mental health."

As the wars dragged on and soldiers returned home after multiple punishing deployments, the pain increasingly has been felt at home, though incidents reported to the authorities have receded in recent years. Suicides at Fort Hood hit a peak of 22 in 2010, the largest one-year total on any Army post during the recent wars, though the numbers have dropped since. Last year, the Lone Star Legal Aid office recorded 172 military-related family violence cases in a surrounding county, down from 250 in 2010.

But law-enforcement officials and advocates said many soldiers were still struggling with the transition back. Lt. Donnie Adams, spokesman for the Bell County Sheriff's Department, said there are surges in fatal motorcycle crashes driven by soldiers freshly returned from combat who "feel that they are invincible" and "buy high-powered bikes they can't handle."

Legal advocates for soldiers said they were fielding calls from troops who had bolted from the base because they felt traumatized after deployments, or who were so heavily medicated for pain that they struggled to wake up for morning formations.

Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a longtime Army psychiatrist who is now chief clinical officer for the District of Columbia's Department of Mental Health, said the wars had taken a toll on the base's soldiers and families. In January, the husband of a soldier who had recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan killed the couple's two daughters before killing himself. The murder-suicide stunned the community.

Fort Hood has placed greater focus on behavioral health issues for soldiers and their families, and runs a Resilience and Restoration Center to help soldiers deal with combat stress, anxiety, anger management and other stumbling blocks of their return. And even some victims of the 2009 rampage still have fond memories of the base that remain unalloyed by the trauma of that day.

Even after she was shot four times in the back in that same hail of gunfire, Amber Gadlin, then a private first class, stayed on base at Fort Hood for more than a year and a half. Shortly after the November 2009 mass shooting, children were back on the playgrounds, she recalled. Soldiers enjoyed down time riding horse, had barbecues and jet-skied around the lake on base.

"After a while, people started to feel safe again," said Ms. Gadlin, who left the Army in 2011 and is now a stay-at-home mother in Albuquerque, N.M. "People still felt secure."

In the wake of Wednesday's shooting rampage, military officials scoured the mental-health background of the gunman, Spc. Ivan Lopez, who committed suicide after a military police officer confronted him. Authorities said Spc. Lopez had been prescribed the sleep aid Ambien and was being treated for depression and anxiety. But military officials said there had been no signs that he appeared dangerous, and they have not found any evidence he had been wounded in combat. On Friday, they said an argument precipitated the shooting.

Some soldiers and veterans said some troops on base should be allowed to carry concealed weapons to defend themselves, a position most military experts oppose. Some called the shooting a tragic aberration. Some said the shooting raised questions about the support systems for returning soldiers while reminding them of their own struggles with alcohol, anger or depression after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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