When the War Comes Home: Iraq Veteran at Fort Hood Speaks Out About Last Week’s Mass Shooting

As families and friends mourn the thirteen individuals who were shot dead at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, questions continue to be raised about what might have motivated Thursday’s rampage. The suspected gunman, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was an Army psychiatrist who had spent most of his career at Walter Reed Hospital before being transferred to Fort Hood earlier this year. He had also recently received orders to deploy to Afghanistan. We speak to Private Michael Kern from Fort Hood and independent journalist and author Dahr Jamail.


Michael Kern, Active-duty veteran of the Iraq war stationed at Fort Hood. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Dahr Jamail, Independent journalist and author. His latest book is The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. His article on the Fort Hood shootings for IPS is titled ‘War Comes Home’

AMY GOODMAN: As families and friends mourn the thirteen people who were shot dead at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, and the more than thirty who were wounded, questions continue to be raised about what might have motivated Thursday’s rampage. President Obama dedicated his weekly address to the shooting that he described as, quote, ‘one of the most devastating ever committed on an American military base.’

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We cannot fully know what leads a man to do such a thing. But what we do know is that our thoughts are with every single one of the men and women who were injured at Fort Hood. Our thoughts are with all the families who’ve lost a loved one in this national tragedy. And our thoughts are with all the Americans who wear or have worn the proud uniform of the United States of America’our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen’and the military families who love and support them.

AMY GOODMAN: The suspected gunman, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who was shot four times by police, is reported to be in critical but stable condition. Investigators have tentatively concluded that Major Hasan acted alone and was not part of a terrorist plot.

But Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut told Fox News Sunday that the shooting spree was, quote, ‘the most destructive terrorist act to be committed on American soil since 9/11.’ He added he would initiate a Senate investigation into whether Major Hasan had, quote, ‘become an Islamic extremist’ and whether the Army had, quote, ‘missed warning signs.’

Army Chief of Staff General George Casey, however, appeared on three Sunday shows, warning against reaching conclusions about the suspected shooter’s motives. On CNN’s State of the Union, General Casey said such speculation could lead to a backlash against Muslims in the military.

GEN. GEORGE CASEY: We can’t jump to conclusions now based on little snippets of information that come out. And, frankly, I am worried’I’m not worried, but I’m concerned that this increased speculation could cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers, and I’ve asked our Army leaders to be on the lookout for that. It would be a shame’as great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Major Hasan was an Army psychiatrist who had spent most of his career at Walter Reed Hospital before being transferred to Fort Hood earlier this year. He had also recently received orders to deploy to Afghanistan.

He was born in the United States to immigrant Palestinian parents. When reporters reached his cousin in the West Bank for comment, he told them he had suffered harassment as a Muslim in the Army, but the turning point, he said, was the order to deploy.

MOHAMMED HASAN: About a week before the incident, he hired a lawyer in order to leave the Army, get married, and live his life. But they rejected his request and asked him to go to Afghanistan. This was the biggest shock for him. So, there’s another reason why he did what he did, not just because of the harassment of the soldiers. There is another reason.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I’m joined now by two guests. Private Michael Kern joins us on the phone from Fort Hood, Texas, where he’s an active-duty veteran of the Iraq war. He’s with Iraq Vets Against the War and returned from Iraq earlier this year. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD; that’s post-traumatic stress disorder.

Also with us via Democracy Now! video stream from California is independent journalist and author Dahr Jamail. His latest book is called The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. His article for IPS, published just after the shootings, is called ‘The War Comes Home.’ His latest article, at TomDispatch.com, ‘Where Will They Get the Troops: Preparing Undeployables for the Afghan Front.’

Michael Kern, let’s begin with you at Fort Hood. You were familiar with Major Hasan, the Army psychiatrist?

MICHAEL KERN: Yes, he was not my particular psychiatrist, but he did work in the building that I go to pretty much weekly. And, you know, the only conversation that we had was, you know, basic greeting: ‘Good morning, sir. How are you doing, sir?’

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the unit that he works in, where you were being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

MICHAEL KERN: He works in a unit called the Medical Evaluation Board, where he basically sees soldiers, diagnoses soldiers with PTSD and other things like that, before they get out of the military, when they’re applying for an evaluation board to be medically retired from the United States Army.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you saw in Iraq, what it means to be treated for PTSD? You said he was not your psychiatrist, but you have commented on what he was hearing from his many patients, soldiers who had returned from the front.

MICHAEL KERN: Yeah, I mean, imagine just having a job where, you know, every soldier comes in and tells you the most horrible tragic stories about what happened in Iraq and what they’ve done in Iraq. And you have to deal with all these things, and then all of a sudden you get orders to deploy? That’s going to screw with anyone, mentally.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what happened to you in Iraq, Michael Kern.

MICHAEL KERN: Numerous things happened to me in Iraq. I actually engaged and shot and killed a child, believing at the time that it was a legitimate kill. That still troubles me to this day. You know, anything’we got hit with mortars, IEDs, EFPs, small arms fires, RPGs, anything you can think of. I lost a lot of good friends out there for a, you know, immoral and an unjust war.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the conversation that’s going on right now at Fort Hood?

MICHAEL KERN: Mostly everyone’s, you know, pretty pissed. You know, actually, this weekend’s been very dead, off post and on post. I haven’t really seen a lot of people. I think people are just trying to stay home and, you know, stay away from everyone right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr Jamail, your latest book, The Will to Resist, your latest article at TomDispatch.com, you’re dealing with this issue. Talk about your observations, having dealt with many soldiers who had been to Iraq and Afghanistan, writing about PTSD, as you have, although Major Hasan never did go to Iraq or Afghanistan, though he was going to be deployed.

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, there is a thing called secondary trauma. And groups come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and do get counseling with the military, which started happening nearly as much as it needs to. When they do talk, they are sharing one horrendous story after another. And so, the folks I’ve been talking with for the book and then during the follow-up articles that I’ve been working on, you know, these are people coming back with severe trauma from the war, talking about stories of, like Michael said, that they’ve experienced killing children, killing unarmed Iraqis, killing’seeing their buddies killed and deeply traumatized, not sleeping at night, grinding their teeth, [inaudible] a lot, not knowing what to do with all of this.

And then, of course, this is happening to them within an environment’for example, there’s one man that I write about in the recent article, Scott Wildman, who served a fifteen-month deployment in Iraq, came back home, couldn’t get treatment at all from the US military, and went AWOL to try to get help and some kind of relief, and then turned himself back in, and then basically found himself sitting in a legal limbo, where he was harassed by his commanders. Sometimes he would be sitting with some other Iraq war veterans who had PTSD, all of them talking amongst one another, and their commander would come in the room and call them a bunch of PTSD sissies, and just getting all kinds of harassment from the higher ranks.

So, obviously this is a rampant problem. I’m seeing this everywhere I look, when I work on this topic and talk with returning veterans. And while the military has talked about doing things to rectify it, clearly it’s not enough. And Fort Hood is a great example. I mean, this is the largest military base on the planet. It’s the most heavily deployed base. And even before the incident last Friday, this is a base that, as of’by the end of July, which is the last month we have statistics from Fort Hood on suicides there, by the end of July this base was averaging over ten suicides a month, just at Fort Hood alone.

AMY GOODMAN: In talking about how the military deals with PTSD, suicide’what, one every few days now, and the numbers are going up’with people who do not want to go, Michael Kern, with those who are’for example, like what has been reported of Major Hasan, he was trying to figure out every way he could not deploy, discussions he was having. They said he had called a lawyer, wanted to offer back all the money of his training to get him out of the military. What kind of options are there when you’re at a place like Fort Hood, the largest military base in the United States, biggest site of deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan?

MICHAEL KERN: No options. I mean, when you have orders to deploy, when you’re about to deploy, you can even take a urinalysis and pop pot, you know, six or seven times, and, you know, just because you have orders and you’re set to deploy, you know, you’re going to be punished for it, but they’re not going to kick you out of the military. You know, there’s really nothing, in my opinion, that you can do, you know, to get out. I mean, even filing for conscientious objection, I’ve seen that fail through plenty of times already. There’s really nothing. I mean, but as soon as you get back from Iraq, you know, as soon as you take that urinalysis again and you pop pot, they’re going to kick you right out of the military, take away all your benefits, take away everything, just, you know, discharge you with a bad conduct discharge.

AMY GOODMAN: Dahr Jamail, what do think is least understood right now about soldiers’ options? And what do you see, from your own experience with dealing with PTSD, this issue that people are now talking about of secondary PTSD? I mean, Major Hasan did not go to Iraq or Afghanistan’or what they call compassion fatigue’but he hears the stories of people like patients, like Michael Kern, who return and talk about what they’ve done, as Michael was talking about killing a child in Iraq, which he now feels, which he now has to live with every day.

DAHR JAMAIL: Well, soldiers are under tremendous pressure to always, quote-unquote, ‘suck it up.’ You know, to be a good soldier means you’re always strong, you’re always charging forward. This is how folks are trained in boot camp. So this is, of course, totally antithetical to getting treatment for PTSD. So I think most soldiers, it’s safe to say, that do come home from Iraq and Afghanistan have some sort of PTSD, whether it’s mild or severe, but they’re encouraged, by their own indoctrination and training and peer pressure and pressure from above, to just basically not deal with it.

And even those that do get help and go get treatment, they find themselves being put back into action anyway. As of last year, more than 43,000 soldiers already listed as medically unfit to be deployed were deployed anyway. We have a situation right now in Iraq where 12 percent of combat troops in Iraq, and then over in Afghanistan 17 percent of combat troops in Afghanistan, are already on psychotropic meds to help them sleep at night and because they have PTSD and severe depression. And this is just that we know of. So, they’re encouraged not to talk about it, not to get help. And then when they do, they simply don’t tend to get the treatment that they need.

And then, as you mentioned, secondary trauma is something we rarely, if ever, hear about, where the people actually treating these veterans, they are traumatized by hearing these stories, just as journalists who report on these stories firsthand are, as well. So this is something we don’t hear about. Major Hasan was clearly overloaded. We’ve heard from his family that he was seeing one caseload of after another, not getting a break. And this is something also not being talked about and, therefore, not being addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Kern, final comments as an active-duty soldier back from Iraq’you were there for more than a year’of efforts being made at Fort Hood now to deal with soldiers like you who suffer so much when you come back?

MICHAEL KERN: You know, I’m actually getting some very good treatment now from the United States military, but it took me two to three months of fighting with my chain of command and fighting with mental health professionals to actually get into the WTU [Warrior Transition Unit] unit and get the treatment that I’m getting now.

You know, every soldier needs to be treated when they come back from Iraq. You know, this is not the first time something like this has happened. This has happened in Iraq, when the guy snapped and killed seven mental health professionals in Iraq. And this’I can almost guarantee this won’t be the last time this military doesn’t have anything to’doesn’t stop something, if the military doesn’t change something. The war is coming home, and we need to stop it right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Michael Kern, do you feel a rising wave of anti-Muslim sentiment on the base, or are people seeing this as a person who was under tremendous pressure, could have been Christian, could have been Jewish, could have been Muslim; it wasn’t’religion wasn’t the issue?

MICHAEL KERN: I don’t see religion as being an issue with the people I’ve talked to. You know, I don’t see religion being the issue in anyone’s mind. I mean, yeah, the media is trying to spin it like that right now, but, I mean, I think most soldiers are, you know, pretty much well informed, that they don’t watch the regular news. And I’m pretty sure that they think it’s compassionate PTSD.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Michael Kern, active-duty soldier, veteran of the Iraq war, stationed at Fort Hood, he’s a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. And Dahr Jamail, independent journalist, his latest book, The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. His article on the Fort Hood shootings for IPS is called ‘War Comes Home.’

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