Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fort Hood: A Reflection

UPDATE: An interesting footnote for this reflection. According to the Washington Post (11/10/2009), Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan, the shooter at Ft. Hood, gave a presentation to colleagues in 2007 which examined the attitude of some Islamic soldiers and ended with the following recommendation: "Department of Defense should allow Muslims [sic] Soldiers the option of being released as 'Conscientious objectors' to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events." If only they had listened...

On January 9, 1991, a Mexican-American Catholic captain in the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps convened a press conference and made the following statement:

I, Yolanda Huet-Vaughn, M.D., am a board-certified family physician, a wife,a mother of three children ages two, five, and eight. I am also a member since 1980 of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S. affiliate of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. In 1982 I cofounded the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. I am from Kansas City, Kansas. I am a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps. In connection with the Gulf crisis I was called to active duty service in December 1990.

I am refusing orders to be an accomplice in what I consider an immoral, inhumane, and unconstitutional act, namely an offensive military mobilization in the Middle East. My oath as a citizen-soldier to defend the Constitution, my oath as a physician to preserve life and prevent disease, and my responsibility as a human being to the preservation of this planet, would be violated if I cooperate with Operation Desert Shield....

As a result, my college friend Yoli ended up court-martialed. After a military trial, Yoli was sentenced for desertion to 30 months in prison, of which she served 8 months in Ft. Leavenworth away from her family and medically-indigent patients before being granted clemency as a result of public pressure. She made the best of her time behind bars, teaching her fellow inmates about AIDS prevention and breast cancer screening, helping them in any way she could. Today she is back at her family medical practice, advocating for health care reform.

This week, we read about another army officer/physician/war objector, Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American-born Muslim of Palestinian descent. However the path he chose led to a radically different and tragic outcome: the deaths of 13 individuals and the wounding of more than 30 others including himself at Fort Hood.

There are parallels. Both Yoli and Dr. Hasan are children of immigrants who joined the military to pay for their medical education. Yoli completed her active duty in the National Guard between the Vietnam War era and the new wars in the Middle East. She joined the reserves with the idea of being available to help in natural disasters, never imagining that she would be called to deploy in a war that she could not support. Dr. Hasan chose psychiatry -- the least "bloody" of the medical specialties -- and specialized in counseling fellow soldiers who had come back from the war zone with post traumatic stress disorder. Both were motivated by the desire to help and to heal.

Both physician-soldiers also attempted to quietly, privately and legally separate themselves from the armed forces when faced with deployments that they found morally unacceptable. Both were unsuccessful in those attempts.

I ask myself how these two cases came to such radically different outcomes, even as I know that many will be upset by such musings. How much easier just to see Dr. Hasan as one lone crazy person who isn't man enough to honor his commitment or, worse, to see in this incident a reason not to trust Muslims or allow them into our military. But I believe that if we do not dig deeper, if we just demonize and discriminate, there will be more "Fort Hood"s in our future, so here are some of the differences that I see:

1. FAMILY: Yoli has said repeatedly that she was always supported in her decision to resist deployment by her family -- her husband who would be raising their children alone for a while, as well as her mother and other relatives. She could talk with them, cry with them. As a mother, she had every reason to choose a path of life and nonviolence.

On the other hand, one senses from press accounts that Dr. Hasan was not very close to his family, unable to really confide in them what he was thinking and feeling. Certainly he was lonely and looking for a wife and perhaps, had he been married, he would have acted differently because he would have had someone to lose. In their formal statement, Hasan's family disassociated themselves from his action saying that they are "shocked and saddened" and adding that they are proud of America. One gets the sense of shame, that this son has dishonored them by his actions, but perhaps this very concept of honor kept Dr. Hasan from getting the support he needed to just make a statement and go to jail for a while. There was no guidance towards a peaceful way out of a situation that his family questioned whether he should be in to begin with.

2. RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY: Yoli's attempt to get discharged as a conscientious objector was actively supported by her Catholic chaplain and at her trial, several clergy including Bishop Gumbleton of Pax Christi were willing to testify although the military court disallowed them. As Yoli was working through her issues of the commitments she had made to the Army, the Hippocratic oath she had taken as a doctor to do no harm, the teachings of her faith tradition as a Catholic, her moral responsibilities to her unit, patients and family, there were open, sympathetic clergy with whom she could explore the various options that lay before her.

I contrast this with the attitude of Osman Danquah, the co-founder of the Islamic Community of Greater Killeen, Texas, as it has been reported in the press (Associated Press and USA Today). Dr. Hasan came to him with an oblique question about the ethical problem of fighting against fellow Muslims and what should a person do if they are in the military and no longer feel it's right. Instead of lending an empathetic ear to Dr. Hasan's request for spiritual direction, Danquah, himself a Gulf War veteran, tells the doctor "there's something wrong with you", suspecting him of being an agent provocateur. Danquah's advice was limited to reminding Hasan that throughout the Middle East, Muslims are killing other Muslims in war every day and that if he objected to military service, he should go through the proper channels. He appeared to be more concerned that Muslims conform to the community around them than dealing with one person's ethical dilemnas. Some serious soul-searching is in order.

Add to this the fact that Dr. Hasan encountered discrimination as a Muslim within the military while there is not a well-developed tradition and support for nonviolent conscientious objection to war within Islam and you have a man who is very alone, frightened perhaps, with no one to steer him towards a better course. He loses it and concludes (I'm guessing here) that by killing soldiers before they can be deployed -- and perhaps hoping to be killed himself in the process -- he can somehow serve a greater good and prevent the shedding of more of his "brothers"' blood.

So, as we mourn those who died in this tragedy, what can we do to help prevent future incidents?


a) Make it easier for serious war objectors to be discharged from the service. What do you gain by deploying someone who will freeze either morally or psychologically in combat?

b) Make a more concerted effort to find and treat the "wounded healers." This field of psychology is well-developed for civilian first responders but I doubt that it is sufficiently in place for military personnel. Do not assume that because a person is not in a combat zone they are not traumatized. Dr. Hasan's uncle attributes his nephew's breakdown to a combination of harassment because of his faith, a cumulative reaction to the horrific stories told by his patients, and a caseload that had become increasingly unbearable.


Really listen to your loved ones and those who come to you for spiritual advice. If they seem troubled, ask what is bothering them and, regardless of your opinion of their response, be there for them. Don't judge them but help them to get professional help if needed. As these two cases show, your attitude can make all the difference.

ADDENDUM: I want to share this video of a prayer service conducted by Chaplain Col. Frank Jackson for the victims at Fort Hood, including Dr. Hasan, the killer. His choice to pray for Hasan is courageous and exemplifies what Jesus taught when He asked us to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.

1 comment:

  1. Buyer be aware!
    I know that the US military of any branch offers many benefits to enlisted soldiers, some of them may be collected after discharge, but all people of all backgrounds and all cultures, should be very conscious that the US military is –specially after WWII-a hands on armada and that chances are that by enrolling you’ll be deployed here or there sooner or later, and the reasons of the deployment may not be of your liking.
    The great majority of the countries, have a defensive military, meaning that they don’t see action unless their country is under atack or perhaps some divisions are send to help out the US military in some endeavor around the work.
    Here, not such thing. Who could have said that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union there would be such a big mess in the world, having to do with the Middle East. The Balkan crisis, perhaps was predictable given the history of that place, but then came the Taliban, 9/11 Al-queida, Afghanistan and finally that war of choice in Iraq.
    My point, if you join the military, expect action and don’t complain about where it will be because the generals don’t decide where to go fight or help, the politicians do and many time they don’t have the most noble intentions in their minds.
    If you are an idealist and want to do well for the world, join Peace Corps, Physicians without Borders, Green peace, become a monk, etc. etc. The military is no place for idealist.