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Call for mental screenings for recruits awaiting Congress before shooting

A Pennsylvania congressman says a bill that might have prevented the latest Fort Hood shooting spree was sitting on Capitol Hill when Army Spec. Ivan Lopez opened fire on April 2, killing three fellow soldiers and wounding 16 before committing suicide.

The Medical Evaluation Parity for Service Members Act, or MEPS, was introduced by Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, R-Centre County, six days before the shootings. It mandates psychological screenings for recruits before they leave for boot camp and would screen those who transfer into active duty from reserve forces or the National Guard.

The Pentagon requires rigorous physical screenings on enlistees but no mental health tests to weed out troubled volunteers.

Lopez, 34, was a former Puerto Rico Army National Guard soldier who joined the active duty side and did a brief 2011 non-combat stint in Iraq. He was being treated at Fort Hood for anxiety disorders, sleeplessness and depression, and had complained of a traumatic brain injury from an accident.

Military leaders have said they're unsure of the exact motive for the rampage, though information from Army and Lopez family spokesmen indicates it may have stemmed from an argument over the handling of a leave request for his mother's funeral in November.

“I think it would've caught him,” Thompson told the Tribune-Review of his bill's requirements. “That's my intent. If you change your service, like he did, and go on active duty, I would think that it would catch any underlying psychological conditions.”

Thompson is a former therapist, rehabilitation services manager and a licensed nursing home administrator in his third term in Congress, according to his biography.

MEPS has garnered 15 bipartisan co-sponsors and the support of the American Psychological Association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the National Guard Association of the United States, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and several other military organizations. A key selling point is that it doesn't raise Defense Department costs.

The April 2 shooting was the second at the sprawling Texas base since 2009, when Maj. Nidal Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, murdered 13 soldiers. Hasan had complained about an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan and wanted to protect fellow Muslims from U.S. combat operations. Found guilty of the murders at court martial, he was sentenced to death and awaits execution.

Thompson said many members of Congress were “shocked” to discover after the massacres that the military doesn't assess the mental health of recruits. He pointed to surveys showing that one in five soldiers entering the Army arrives with a psychiatric disorder. Of those who attempt suicide, half tried to kill themselves before enlisting, and most were never later exposed to combat.

“Given what the Fort Hood community is suffering through with this second terrible incident, this bill is something Congress can do for them now. It won't have an immediate effect, but it will over time,” Thompson said.

Other MEPS provisions are geared toward aiding vets returning with the mental wounds of war. Baseline psychological testing can reveal identity changes throughout a soldier's career caused by post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries and other mental maladies. The legislation bans commanders from using a GI's ongoing psychological care to deny promotions or assignments.

“You kind of get beaten up, banged up and even blown up along the way when you go to war,” Thompson said. “Our troops don't deserve to be labeled with an unwarranted personality disorder or tagged with a pre-existing condition that can be used to deny promotions or disqualify them from service-connected benefits. That's why we need that baseline test.”

cprine@tribweb.com

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