Thursday, January 18, 2018

Investigators seek a motive for fatal shootings at Fort Hood

Spec. Ivan Antonio Lopez had seen a military psychiatrist as recently as last month. He was being treated for depression and anxiety, and had been prescribed Ambien to help him sleep. He had come back from a four-month deployment to Iraq in 2011 and told superiors he had suffered a traumatic head injury there. But military officials said he had never seen combat, and there was no record of any combat-related injury. He was being evaluated for possible post-traumatic stress disorder.

Still, military officials said Thursday, they had seen nothing to indicate that Lopez, 34 — who killed three people and himself and wounded 16 others Wednesday at Fort Hood, Texas — was violent or suicidal.

"He had a clean record," Secretary of the Army John McHugh said Thursday morning in testimony before a Senate panel in Washington. "No outstanding bad marks for any kinds of major misbehaviors that we're yet aware of."

Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the Fort Hood commander, said Thursday at a news conference that there were "very strong indications" that there had been a "verbal altercation" between Lopez and one or more other soldiers in the minutes before the shooting started, but the authorities were still investigating what role, if any, that played in the attack.

"We have very strong evidence looking into his medical history that indicated an unstable psychiatric condition," Milley said.

Friends from his hometown in Puerto Rico said that Lopez was angry with the Army when he returned home for his mother's funeral in November. Ismael Gonzalez, a former schoolmate who had kept in contact with Lopez on Facebook, said the soldier was upset that he had initially been given only 24 hours to attend the funeral.

In addition, Gonzalez said, Lopez, who was earning $28,000 a year, told him that he was "in a precarious economic situation" trying to support his family in Texas and two children in Puerto Rico from his first marriage. And he was angry that the Army would not allow him to move his family onto the base at Fort Hood, Gonzalez said.

None of this had found its way into Lopez's official record.

"This was an experienced soldier," said Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff. "He spent actually nine years in the Puerto Rico National Guard before coming on active duty, so he's a very experienced soldier."

Those who knew Lopez as a young man, obsessed with the high school band, were even more stunned to learn what he was suspected of doing.

"I cannot believe you are speaking about the same guy," said Sgt. Maj. Nelson Bigas, one of Lopez's superiors in the National Guard. "He was the most responsible, obedient, humble person, and one of the most skillful guys on the line."

For a year beginning in 2006, Lopez was deployed with his guard unit on the Sinai Peninsula, watching the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

But, the authorities say, it was Lopez who went into Guns Galore in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, on March 1 and bought the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol that was used in the shootings Wednesday.

It was the same gun store where Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army major, had bought at least one of the weapons used in a 2009 mass shooting on the base.

Information was emerging slowly Thursday about Lopez. He was raised in the small fishing village of Guayanilla on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, about an hour and a half from San Juan. While there, he attended the School of Asunción Rodríguez de Sala, where he was active in the band and an enthusiastic drummer. In 1999, he joined the National Guard, where he also played in the band. Later, he joined the Puerto Rico Police Department and became a member of its band. Officials said his record with the force was clean, with no disciplinary or behavioral problems.

His main job for the police was visiting schools and hospitals around Puerto Rico to give demonstrations on his percussion instruments. After he finished, other police officers would speak to the students or patients about gun violence, drugs and bullying, said Jeann Correa, the director of the unit for which he worked. His pay was $2,400 a month.

In 2010, getting a special leave from the police force, he shifted into the Army as a private first class and was quickly promoted to specialist and stationed with the 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. He was an infantryman there, but his military record shows that in November, because of an unspecified "medical condition," he moved to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where he trained to become a truck driver. In February 2011, he was posted to Fort Hood in that capacity.

Lopez had been married twice, first to Dimaris Cancel, whom he met in high school. They had two children and divorced. In El Paso, he met a community college student named Karla Machado; they married and had at least one child.

Xanderia Morris, who lives directly below the Lopez residence in Killeen, called them a "typical, happy couple." She said she comforted the grief-stricken woman, who learned of her husband's death from a newscast she heard through the open doorway of Morris' apartment.

"I brought her inside and sat her down on the couch," she said. "I just wanted to console her."

About 15 minutes later, several law enforcement officers arrived and the woman left with them, Morris said.

"She gave me a big hug and thanked me," Morris said. "I haven't seen her since."

Morris said neighbors told her that Lopez was home for lunch just hours before the shooting and showed no signs of distress.

Although little is known about the specific treatment Lopez may have received, a soldier who was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder, as Lopez apparently was, would be interviewed by a mental health practitioner and asked to fill out questionnaires about symptoms, mental health specialists said. The clinicians would then decide if the symptoms could be attributed to trauma during the soldier's military service.

Although Lopez apparently reported that he had a traumatic brain injury, Dr. Charles Marmar, chairman of psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center, said that the symptoms of traumatic brain injury often overlap with those of post-traumatic stress disorder. Diagnosing the problem relies heavily on self-reporting, he said.

Marmar said that most soldiers with post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury were not violent. "It would be tragic to tar the vast majority of war fighters, with or without PTSD or TBI, who would never commit acts of mass violence, with this act," he said.

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