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Why Navy Yard shooting raises tough questions for Pentagon (+video)

The Navy Yard shooting has raised questions about security clearance and mental health, but with many vets dealing with combat-related stress, any solutions are fraught with complications.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / September 19, 2013

Military personnel enter Washington Navy Yard as workers returned to work Thursday, three days after a gunman killed 12 people there.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Washington

In the wake of the mass shooting this week that killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, senior Pentagon officials have vowed to review the process for granting security clearances.

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“Obviously, something went wrong,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters on Wednesday. 

“We will review everything,” he added. “Where there are gaps, we will close them. Where there are inadequacies, we will address them. And where there are failures, we will correct them.”

In the end, the alleged shooter, Aaron Alexis, had multiple red flags, including run-ins with the law that involved firearms and complaints he made to a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital that he was hearing voices.

But the broader issue of security clearance and mental health is one fraught with complications for the Defense Department as veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan seek to assimilate back into society – and, in many cases, get Pentagon jobs.

If the shootings at the Navy Yard push the Pentagon to further restrict security clearance for those with mental health-related issues, the decision could affect the opportunities available to those struggling with combat-related stress. In that way, the consequences of this week's shootings are potentially far-reaching for a Pentagon that has said a primary goal is helping veterans lead normal and productive lives.

For his part, Mr. Alexis was never on active duty and did not serve in war. He was already struggling with mental health challenges before he entered the Navy Reserves, officials point out.

Yet in the hours immediately following the attack, commentators wondered aloud whether it was a US military service member, perhaps damaged by what he had seen at war, who had done harm to his fellow troops.

The question of how the force should handle those it thinks are grappling mightily with combat stress is a significant concern within the Pentagon.

Whether or not an applicant has sought mental health counseling is a key question on the standard background check form for those applying for a national-security related job.

Known as “Question 21,” it asks whether “In the last seven years, you have consulted with a mental health professional (psychiatrist, counselor, etc.) ... about a mental health related condition?”

In order to de-stigmatize counseling for combat stress, federal guidelines now allow soldiers to answer “no” if they received counseling for post-traumatic stress resulting from battle, marital strife due to war-related separation, or grief from losing a fellow soldier.

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