Fort Hood's Bleak World

The base where a mental-health counselor went on a deadly rampage, a sprawling complex in an economically depressed corner of Texas, is a stark reminder of the emotional tolls of war.

11.05.09 8:12 PM ET

Maybe the most amazing thing about the shootings at Fort Hood today is that nothing like this has ever happened here until now. Fort Hood is one of the largest bases in the U.S., with a population of more than 45,000. It is also the home of the division of the 4th Cavalry that captured Saddam Hussein. Just about anyone who has spent time in the area knows, that’s about as good as the news gets. The landscape of Fort Hood is only slightly more hospitable than that of Iraq—hot, dry, dusty and sparse, Texas as outsiders imagine it—and the neighboring town of Killeen is a sea of chain hotels and chain restaurants, which is actually an improvement over a few decades ago, before the area decided to become family-friendly, when tattoo parlors and pawn shops dominated. The place reflects all too well the state of today’s military, which means that the people you see on the streets, almost always dressed in fatigues, are young, poor, uneducated and, invariably, stressed to the max because they have served or will serve multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan. We don’t yet know the full details of what caused a military mental health counselor to open fire, killing 13 and wounding 30. But if most Americans can forget about the wars we are fighting on the other side of the world, the toll they have taken has been inescapable here, even before Thursday’s tragedy.

“We were expecting something like this to happen,” says Cynthia Thomas, director of Under the Hood, a military resisters’ café near the base. “With the multiple deployments, the lack of psychiatric care in huge numbers, this has been building.”

At Shoemaker High School, for instance, 80 percent of the students have at least one parent in the military. Rows of stars stand in for ceiling molding in the hallways, silver for parents serving, and gold for those who have given their lives. When I wrote about the place in 2006, the school was just forming support groups for the three students whose soldier/parents had died that year, and the counselors were desperately looking for people to take in kids who had two deployed parents and were living on their own. The widows of several soldiers were banding together to fight for military benefits that had been promised but were not forthcoming. The boys being shipped overseas, some just barely past their 18th birthdays, weren’t swaggering; they were grim. The disenchantment with military life was palpable almost everywhere you went.

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Despite the ubiquitous “We support our troops” signs, things have only gotten worse since the days we first learned that soldiers were being sent overseas on the cheap, without proper body armor. “There are so many people who are just so numb to it now,” says Barbara Critchfield, a former counselor at Shoemaker who now works at Live Oak Ridge Middle School nearby. “People are either hardened to it or really sensitive about it.” Those who are “sensitive” remain intensely—defensively—supportive of the war, while others have joined a growing antiwar movement that may have spoken to the alleged shooter, Nidal Malik Hasan. Killeen now has a military resisters’ café, called Under the Hood, where enervated soldiers can go for help. (A similar venue, the Oleo Strut coffeehouse, existed during the Vietnam years in Killeen. The place has never been as one-dimensional as it’s been portrayed.)

Cynthia Thomas, Under the Hood’s director, echoes Critchfield’s words: “We were expecting something like this to happen,” she says. “With the multiple deployments, the lack of psychiatric care in huge numbers, this has been building.” The military has never been known for embracing therapy—it wasn’t manly—and efforts to salve war wounds in Killeen were minimal at best, of the too little, too late variety. (One book for kids written by a local mental-health agency was called Night Catch, and was about a child whose father taught him to find him in Iraq by locating the north star.) The meaning of a PTSD-related shooting on post last year—one soldier killed another—was missed by the national media, but people in Fort Hood understood. “People need to know that there’s a lot of self-medicating going on with drugs and alcohol,” Thomas says. If they didn’t know before, we can assume that, over the next few days, they will.

Mimi Swartz is executive editor of Texas Monthly, and the author, with Sherron Watkins, of Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron. She has been a staff writer at Talk and the New Yorker.