Jumping Over Roadblocks: Inside PTSD and the Military Bureaucracy

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Bob Gordon paints a cross placed in front of 16 American flags as he helps build a memorial in front a church for the victims of the Fort Hood shooting on April 2, 2014.
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New details have emerged about the gunman who murdered three and injured 16 before killing himself at Fort Hood on Wednesday. 

Contrary to previous reports, the shooter, Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, served from 2006-2008 in Egypt, and for six months in Iraq in 2011. At Fort Hood, Specialist Lopez was undergoing treatment for anxiety and depression, and he was being evaluated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. Psychotherapist Marjorie Morrison knows these numbers well. The author of "The Inside Battle: Our Military Mental Health Crisis," she's spent a decade working with veterans and active duty service members to combat PTSD before it starts.

"When you look at the Fort Hood incident, I don't know that we can really say that this was a PTSD issue because he didn't properly have that diagnosis and he didn't see combat," says Morrison. "I think this case is not that different to one like Sandy Hook or the Navy Yard."

Morrison adds that the recent deaths of Lopez's mother and grandfather may have pushed him over the edge. 

"When we look at it from a systemic standpoint, all of these things are sort of manifestations of stress that are not properly dealt with so it becomes more catastrophic," she adds.

Pre-screenings for anxiety issues and the potential for PTSD and mental illness are not often a priority of the military. The lack of a preventive strategy, according to Morrision, is a large problem.

"We just cannot seem to move [the military] into that direction," she says. "What they haven't been able to do is to look at that prevention individually. Every single one of us has a propensity for what happens to us when we're under stress—some people drink too much, some people socially isolate, some people spend too much money. If you learn what happens to you, and you learn remedies that you can put into place when such a thing occurs, you have an exponentially better chance of it not turning into some horrible event. And yet, the military will teach individual physical health—they have physical training—but not mental health."

Morrison says she has seen positive results from a preventative approach. During a year-long residency at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Morrison and a group of military officers developed a training program to help service members recognize and prevent stress in its myriad forms. While at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, the doctor says that she put 500 to 600 drill instructors through mandatory individual and group counseling.

"It was a phenomenal program, and everybody that was part of it thought that it was the answer," she says.

In September 2012, the 1st Marine Recruit at Camp Pendleton invited her to develop and expand the program for as many as 4,500 infantry soldiers.

"I interviewed hundreds and hundreds of Marines to understand what the issues really are," says the doctor. "We wrote a great program, we were just never able to get it off the ground." 

Before the program could be implemented, Morrison needed a specific military credential. She says that she ran into roadblock after roadblock, level after level of bureaucracy. Finally, a North Carolina Congressman referred the matter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who asked the Secretary of the Navy to investigate.

That was in December. Morrison has yet to hear from the military about implementing her program.