When Cynthia Thomas’s husband was wounded during his second deployment to Iraq, she reunited with him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he was shipped to from the war on life support.
She took him home to Texas, where he healed from broken bones and struggled with post-traumatic stress.
The following year, the Army told her husband that it was sending him back to war. “At the time, the doctors were telling us that he was nondeployable, with fractures and post-traumatic stress,” Ms. Thomas says. “Still, they went ahead and took him.”
While he was away, Thomas started seeking out support and found it among folks who taught her the history of coffeehouses in the Vietnam era, as places of protest and of community support for troops back from the war.
She decided that Killeen, Texas, needed something like that. And so, just months before the first Fort Hood shooting that would claim the lives of 13 people, she started “Under the Hood” cafe just down the road from the largest Army base in America.
Often, the military community is told to “keep it insular,” she says. But she figured that as a military spouse, “I could talk about this stuff.” She wanted others – younger soldiers especially – to be able to talk, too, about their experiences and their fears.
“My husband had served in the Army for 20 years. He was in his 40s. If they mistreated him, I thought, what chance do these soldiers have?”
Five years later, Under the Hood has become a gathering place for soldiers in the aftermath of the second Fort Hood shooting, which has left four dead and 16 wounded.
Today, soldiers stream in to discuss the tragedy. On less devastating days, they come for writing workshops and support groups for post-traumatic stress. The center recently offered a popular craft session: making paper out of old military uniforms and then binding them to make journals.
The cafe also trains peer-to-peer counselors. “The idea behind it is that soldiers may be more able to work through things with someone who’s also been in those circumstances,” says Malachi Muncy, manager of Under the Hood. “It’s not a be-all-end-all, but it can help folks who can’t bring themselves to talk to anyone else.”
That sense of community is what drew Mr. Muncy to the cafe after returning home from the Iraq war. A truck driver for the National Guard, he was having trouble readjusting to life back in the United States.
Some of that was the result of his work during the war. He drove HET (heavy equipment transport) trucks, designed to carry tanks and the “tank killing” Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
But though they often hauled up-armored humvees for delivery to troops suffering the devastating effects of roadside bombs, their truck was unarmored.
Back home in Texas, Muncy suffered from insomnia and anxiety. He felt disconnected from his previous life – from the daughter born while he was on deployment and from the death of his father – and he struggled with drug addiction.
So he promptly signed back up to return to war. “I just felt like a lot had changed at home that I had no control over, and I’d be better off in Iraq,” he says.
Then he was tasked to help “clean up” after a deadly helicopter crash that killed 13 US troops. Digging out the remains of that helicopter crash contrasted sharply with the report he saw on the local news in the chow hall that night – “seeing that everything about these people could be summed up by saying: 13 dead in Iraq,” he says.
It caused him to examine the relationship between soldiers and society. Under the Hood draws soldiers who are doing the same.
The concern among the fellow soldiers he speaks with in the aftermath of this week’s rampage is not that “the person to the left or right of them is going to snap,” but rather how they themselves are going to be perceived for having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I think there’s definitely a mental health component anytime anyone picks up a gun and does this – whether there’s a political identification or something else,” he says.
The problem is that it is difficult to highlight PTSD without creating the backlash of stigma, he says. Many troops he speaks with would like to drop the “d” from post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is something that top Army officials, including the former No. 2 officer in the Army, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, have supported as well.
“It’s not a disorder,” Muncy argues. “It’s a normal reaction to these extreme sorts of circumstances of war.”
Muncy says that along with his fellow soldiers, he has noticed that when Army officials are publicly discussing the alleged shooter, Spc. Ivan Lopez, they have repeatedly cited his longstanding mental health struggles. “But by saying that he had some sort of personality disorder, they’re saying, ‘The Army didn’t do this to him. It’s his personal failure to adjust.’ ”
Muncy pauses. “But the amount of trauma that someone can tolerate is individual,” he says. He cites military sexual trauma, which soldiers also come to the cafe to discuss. “You don’t have to be in combat to be traumatized by your experience in the military,” he says.
For her part, Thomas grapples with the harsh media spotlight that tragedies like the Fort Hood shooting generate, but weighs it against the awareness it brings to the struggles of everyday soldiers.
“We’ve been seeing these things happen on a smaller scale for years, soldiers killing spouses in houses, domestic violence” – the things Americans outside the military community don’t hear about.
“We have talked about it until we’re blue in the face,” she says. “These are the kinds of things that happen when we don’t take care of our soldiers.”