U.S. Army Specialist Ivan Lopez was from a working-class, practicing-Catholic family in Puerto Rico. He couldn’t have been more different from Fort Hood Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who shouted “Allahu Akbar!” — the Arabic phrase “God is great!” made infamous by terrorist suicide-bombers — before murdering 13 people at the sprawling military base in Killeen, Texas, in 2009.
For Lopez, a 34-year-old former National Guardsman and current truck-driver soldier on his second marriage with a toddler daughter, there was no radical Islamic motivation for violently ending the lives of three comrades and wounding 16 others at Fort Hood April 2, before killing himself.
But Hasan the psychiatrist, professionally trained to help soldiers in times of severe distress, would have likely recognized the mental-health issues — anxiety, depression and sleeplessness — for which Lopez was currently being treated, the PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) for which Lopez was under evaluation, and the sheer rage that drove Lopez’ eight-minute shooting rampage.
Last November, Army paperwork held up Lopez from making it back in time for the wake of his mother, Carmen, in their hometown of Guayanilla, a seaside community of 23,000. He did arrive before the funeral at Immaculate Conception Church, but complained to relatives he had to return shortly to base.
On April 2, he requested another leave of absence to go to Puerto Rico and help settle family affairs. This time a personnel supervisor told him to come back the following day to get the application. Later that Wednesday afternoon around 4 p.m., however, he returned with a semiautomatic .45-caliber pistol he’d bought weeks before at an off-base place called Guns Galore — the same mom-and-pop gun shop where Hasan had purchased his semiautomatic handgun.
And during the two-block-long carnage in and out of his car, Lopez got off 35 rounds, killing Sgt. First Class Daniel Fergurson, 39, Staff Sgt. Carlos Lazaney-Rodriguez, 38, and Sgt. Timothy Owens, 37.
Deadly ‘impulsive behavior’
“The guy’s mother died and he wanted to go see her, and his sergeant wouldn’t let him go more than a day,” said Father John Love, Air National Guard chaplain at the 146th Air Wing in the Channel Islands, and pastor of St. Mark University Church in Goleta.
“And one of the symptoms of PTSD is impulsive behavior. Unfortunately, if the guy has a gun, the impulsive behavior can become deadly. So I think it’s a distinct possibility that the guy was suffering from some undiagnosed trauma.”
An Air National Guard lieutenant colonel, Father Love — ordained for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1990 — has served two deployments to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, which provides primary and tertiary care to military members seriously injured in Afghanistan and other global conflicts.
But the priest, whose father was an Army surgeon, cautions that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an “evolving diagnosis.” Medical and mental-health professionals can’t even agree on what the time interval must be between normal personal trauma after a life-altering event or crisis and severe post-trauma that lingers for months and years. The destructive symptoms can include recurring nightmares and flashbacks, hyperacusis or over-sensitivity to sounds, self-isolation, feelings of anxiety and depression, and concentration difficulties.
The pastor of St. Mark University Church, who holds a doctoral degree in moral formation, has developed his own theory concerning violence in today’s U.S. military, which he also sees in students he ministers to at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“It mirrors violence in society,” Father Love told The Tidings. “In other words, we can’t expect our troops to be much better from the society from which they came. I’m painting with a broad brush here. But oftentimes today young people are solving their problems of grief or depression or lamentation by turning these problems into anger.
“They don’t know how to process grief and sorrow anymore,” he observed. “They don’t know how to sing the blues, so to speak. Anger is the new norm — how you get things done.”
From afar, he surmises that evidently no one taught Ivan Lopez that “it’s OK to grieve” and lament the loss of his mother, and that the best way to honor her was not to become angry and violent.
“He never got that message, and it clearly, I think, built up over a few days and finally something snapped,” said Father Love. “I know I’m using layman’s terms, but that’s the apt description of what happens. There’s a psychotic break, so to speak.”
After a moment, he continued. “We need to teach people to nurture the living and honor the dead,” the priest mused. “That’s our motto for the chaplain corps. The last thing that his mother would have wished would have been for him to shoot a bunch of people in her name out of anger.”