Something bad happened to Army Specialist Ivan Lopez. Something bad in his past that led him to shoot his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood on Wednesday (April 2), killing three and wounding 16 others before turning the gun on himself.
But experts who study the psychological and biological underpinnings of the brain caution that it will be pretty tough to figure out exactly what caused Lopez to commit violence.
"We have very strong evidence that he had a medical history that indicates an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition. (We're) going through all records to ensure that is, in fact, correct. But we we believe that to be the fundamental underlying causal factor," Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the post's commanding general, told reporters on Thursday.
Scientists have known for several years that the stress, fear and hyper-vigilance of combat can lead to changes in the brain, including a shrinking of the hippocampus region that controls memory and navigation. These stressors can also lead to development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a diagnosis that Lopez was seeking within the weeks before the shooting.
In recent months, he had complained of depression, anxiety and loss of sleep, according to officials at Fort Hood. Lopez’s symptoms could have come from his four-month deployment in Iraq in 2011, or they could have occurred sometime much earlier.
“You need an extreme high-magnitude event” to trigger the change in the brain associated with PTSD, according to Brett Litz, professor of psychology at Boston University. “It could have been a car accident in garrison, or incest as a kid or someone beat the crap of you. You don’t need to go to combat.”
In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 7.7 million Americans suffer from PTSD, from children to adults. PTSD can also lead to a variety of mental health problems, including depression and suicide.
Military officials at Fort Hood said that Lopez “was not a wounded warrior” and did not experience combat in Iraq. He told military officials that he suffered a traumatic brain injury from his deployment.
But experts say it’s not always a bomb going off that triggers PTSD.
It can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, according to the NIMH website.
Lopez spent a decade in the National Guard before joining the Army in 2010 as an infantryman. He was upset about the death of both his mother and grandmother in the past six months, according to friends and family interviewed in his hometown of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico by El Nuevo Dia. He was also affected by his time, however short, in Iraq, the newspaper reported.