Why Navy Yard shooting raises tough questions for Pentagon

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.

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

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.

“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.

Asked on Wednesday whether the exemptions to Question 21 should still stand, the top US military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said that they should.

General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that he had worked with retired Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli, the previous deputy commander of US forces in Iraq, who had done a great deal on exploring the causes for suicide within the armed forces, as well as with others “who believed that men and women should have the opportunity to overcome their mental health disorders or their mental challenges or their clinical challenges and shouldn’t be stigmatized.”

“And so I remain in that camp,” he added, “that a man or a woman should have the ability to, with treatment, to overcome them and then to have a fruitful life and gain employment, including inside of the military.” 

Yet for this reason, the questions on the background form may need to be reexamined, says Terri Tanielian, a senior social research analyst at Rand Corp. who studies military and veterans mental health policy.

“I don’t think we’re asking the right questions around mental health right now,” she says. 

“Asking whether you got mental health counseling doesn’t tell you that you can’t do the job, it doesn’t tell you that you can’t be trusted, it doesn’t tell you that you may get violent.”

There is evidence to suggest that those who seek mental health counseling may be healthier than those who do not, adds Ms. Tanielian.

“That’s more likely to be a sign of someone who’s interested in bettering themselves and doing a good job,” she says.

The issue goes to the core question of how the Pentagon should view its responsibility to returning vets still dealing mentally with the after-effects of combat.

“Do you keep them in the ranks and wrap your arms around them tightly, or do you push them out so that the military can focus on its job and let the VA take care of them?” says Phillip Carter, who directs the Military, Veterans, and Society program at the Center for a New American Security.

“I’m enormously sympathetic to vets who have an issue of misconduct linked to their service,” says Mr. Carter, an attorney and former Army officer who served in Iraq. “There are very good reasons to be sympathetic to veterans.” 

The key is balancing that sympathy for those who have been wounded by war with the need to maintain good order and discipline in the ranks, he adds. 

As the service branches prepare to shrink – in many cases by up to 20 percent – in the next five to 10 years, they are likely going to cut the troops that they perceive to be the poorest performers, “many of whom are struggling with the after-effects of combat duty,” Carter notes.

“The military is going to be faced with a strategic choice about whether society would be better off as a whole if the military kept them in the ranks, versus pushing these folks out into society, into VA care,” he adds. “It’s a very important question – and it’s a very hard one.”

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