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Ex-military psychologist: Combat unrelated to Fort Hood rampage

GRAND FORKS — A soldier’s shooting rampage Wednesday at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas has raised questions about the role of post-traumatic stress disorder, but a retired Air Force psychologist now working at the University of North Dakota said he doesn’t believe combat really has anything to do with it.

“The combat stress or PTSD doesn’t cause a massacre like this,” said retired Lt. Col. Randy Nedegaard, a professor of social work. “That’s a completely different thing.”

Ivan Lopez, a 34-year-old Army veteran of the Iraq war, was being evaluated for PTSD when he shot and killed three people and wounded 16 others before killing himself. He was also under treatment for depression and anxiety.

“It’s really too bad people get to that point and I wish we could do more for them,” said Nedegaard, who has deployed with Army soldiers. “But it’s probably not all that surprising, considering the fact the military employs the demographic most likely to act out violently, and that’s young men. So there’s going to be a greater prevalence based on that.

“It’s not just military people. People get hung up on the ‘military trains killers and then they forget who the enemy is.’ I don’t think there is any truth to that.”

Nedegaard said he was in Afghanistan in 2009 when Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 and injured 30 more in another shooting rampage at Fort Hood.

“One of my good friends in deployment was a former colleague of Hasan’s and we had a lot of talks about what was going on with that,” Nedegaard said. “There were some implications for us. I had some guys come in and say, ‘We are a little nervous to come in here, afraid that one of you is going to open up on us.’”

Combat and PTSD

During his 20-year career in the Air Force, Nedegaard has overseen mental health programs at several bases, including a deployment in 2009-10 at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, where he was commander of a combat-stress detachment.

His unit of about three dozen professionals dealt mostly with Army soldiers, he said.

The Army now talks not only about “combat stress” but also “operational stress,” which includes about anyone deployed during a war, whether or not they directly experience combat, he said.

“Combat and operational stress” is distinct from PTSD, which is a clinical medical diagnosis, he said.

“Combat operational stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance, to a highly stressful circumstance,” he said. “There is a fine line between what is normal combat operational stress and what is PTSD, and the difference has to do with whether it impacts someone’s ability to function socially or psychologically.”

Most in the military return from deployments with some degree of combat and operational stress, and not a few with elements of PTSD, he said, but those things would not have caused a massacre.

The military has not offered a motive for Lopez’s rampage, but it has said that, while in Iraq in 2011, he was a truck driver who had no direct involvement in combat. Some people acquainted with him say that he was aggrieved that the Army gave him just one day to attend his mother’s funeral in October in Puerto Rico. That death came soon after his grandfather died.

“That was one of the reasons why he was very upset,” said Edgardo Arlequin, the mayor of Lopez’s hometown of Guayanilla. “They only gave him 24 hours. He was very, very close to his mother. His mother was a nice person and everybody in the town knew her.”

More stress

Nedegaard said it’s important to remember that the overwhelming majority of military members serve with honor.

While on duty in Afghanistan, Nedegaard said he learned “there are a lot of young people enduring a lot of stress and handling it decently. I don’t know that they are handling it any worse or any better than generations before.”

During his Air Force career, he said he saw big changes in the stress levels, much of it due simply to increased workloads, especially after 9/11, exacerbated by parallel budget cutbacks.

“There were probably twice as many people in the Air Force when I joined than when I retired,” he said. “Deployments certainly are tough on the people who are deployed, but the people back home usually have to cover for people who are deployed, so their shifts are longer, too. So it’s been a concern in the military, the whole ‘do more with less,’ for a couple of decades.”

That made the second half of his career tougher than the first, Nedegaard said. “I don’t know if I would have made it if I had to multiply my last 10 years by two. That would have been really hard.”

Nedegaard retired in 2010 as a behavioral-health flight commander but still moonlights a few days a month with Special Forces human intelligence soldiers in the Arizona desert on a contract basis.

“I have a real heart for mental health providers working within the military, in a lot of desperation, a lot of stress and sad stories and an awful lot of work and demands like every other career field,” he said. “It really takes its toll.

“Nobody deploys, regardless of whether you are in a combat deployment or not, and comes back the same,” he said. “You go there and are doing something really challenging and hopefully you grow from it. Sometimes it’s more difficult and people may not have the resources, and it kind of breaks them down instead.”