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HOME FROM WAR, SOLDIERS STRUGGLE TO FIT IN

The second shooting rampage at Fort Hood highlights new anxieties after deployments.

New York Times

KILLEEN, Texas - Pastor Randall Wallace of the First Baptist Church of Killeen has watched thousands of troops head off to war and then come home to Fort Hood, the mammoth base that shares this patch of Central Texas with an unpretentious jumble of pawnshops, fast-food joints and vinyl-sided bungalows.

"These are heroes, 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 rampage 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 deployments 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 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 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 some have been troubled soldiers. The shooting last week brought back sickening memories of the 2009 rampage on the base in which a former Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 13 people.

Experts caution against stigmatizing a generation of soldiers with the actions of a few and note that most troubled soldiers are dangers more to themselves than to others. But they say demand for mental health services at bases has grown over time.

"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 before dropping. Last year, the Lone Star Legal Aid office recorded 172 military-related family violence cases in a surrounding county, down from 250 in 2010.

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 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 he appeared dangerous. On Friday they said an argument precipitated the shooting.

Some soldiers, veterans and elected officials said some personnel on the base should be allowed to carry concealed weapons to defend themselves, a position most military experts oppose. But few doubt that one of the most troubling aspects of violence on the base is that it comes in a place where soldiers should feel safe after returning from dangerous posts abroad.

The base and the town's military-drenched culture offer a sanctuary and a source of pride for many soldiers, active and retired.

In November 2009, Sgt. Alonzo Lunsford was shot seven times by Hasan. Lunsford, now retired, lost sight in his left eye and suffers from post-traumatic stress and recurring headaches, among other things, but he said he has fond memories of taking care of soldiers at one of the medical centers on base. "Then all of a sudden on Nov. 5, everything changed," he said. "The reality is this: We have security measures in place for a reason. It's like flying an airplane. Things happen but it is still the safest mode of transportation. Fort Hood and other military bases are the same."

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