While no one yet knows what ignited Major Nidal Malik Hasan's murderous rage on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 5, at Fort Hood, the kindling was hiding in plain sight. The Army had ordered Hasan, wrestling with the conflicting demands of being a soldier, a psychiatrist and a Muslim, to the post with the highest toll of Army suicides. Fort Hood is one of the Army's most stressed posts because of its units' revolving-door deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Finally, the Army made clear that Hasan couldn't escape his own pending deployment to Afghanistan, where he'd have to salve the mental wounds of fellow soldiers killing members of his own faith.
Soldiers nursing the mental and emotional scars of war have overwhelmed the central Texas base, the Army's largest. Cases of posttraumatic stress disorder quadrupled from 2005 to 2007, and PTSD affects even those like Hasan who haven't gone off to war. "Mental-health issues are a real problem for the Fort Hood population," an Army study concluded last year. "Soldiers don't live in a vacuum," it added, noting that they have "families and friends who are also affected by the trauma the soldiers experience."
Hasan had spent six years dealing with the mental wreckage of war at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and, since July, at Fort Hood's Darnall Army Medical Center. His own susceptibility to mental problems was likely heightened because he was pretty much a loner: he wasn't married or in a relationship. After his parents died a decade ago, he seemed to become more religious. Absent close family, he spent much of his time counseling soldiers whose minds and bodies were scarred in combat.
His growing opposition to the wars which apparently spiked when President Barack Obama decided not to pull U.S. troops out of region, as Hasan had hoped crystallized when he received orders for his first combat deployment. "We've known for the last five years that that was probably his worst nightmare," Nader Hasan, a cousin, told Fox News. "He would tell us how he hears horrific things ... that was probably affecting him psychologically." Authorities took note six months ago when someone with Hasan's name posted messages on the Internet likening suicide bombers to soldiers who protect their buddies by diving atop a live grenade, although no formal inquiry was launched.
Any opposition Hasan had toward the wars could have deepened because of his constant contact with soldiers suffering from PTSD, that 2008 Army study suggested. More broadly, an Army study released in July found that major crimes have been on the rise at U.S. Army bases since 2003. It noted that crime rates and mental illnesses are rising with increased deployments and casualties.
Exactly what role Hasan's faith played in the shooting, if any, is unknown. Since well before 9/11, the U.S. military has welcomed Muslims into its ranks, and nearly all have served as fine soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. But since the 2001 attacks, there have been concerns that some Muslims, once in uniform, would put religion above country. In April 2005, Army Sergeant Hasan Akbar was sentenced to death for killing two officers in Kuwait just before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Prosecutors said he launched the attack because he was concerned about U.S. troops killing fellow Muslims. That is apparently the only recent case of a Islamic soldier citing his faith as a reason for killing fellow troops.
Muslim scholars have long believed it is proper for Muslims to serve in a military force fighting other Muslims so long as they remain free to practice their faith. "If the leadership says another country is a threat, then the Muslim has the obligation to defend his country," says John Voll, an Islamic historian at Georgetown University, "... even if the other country is Islamic." But concerned over "the hatred that could come out," Representative Chet Edwards, a Texas Democrat whose district is near Fort Hood, told TIME he and Representative Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota and the lone Muslim in Congress, are seeking data on how many Muslims are now serving (perhaps 5,000 out of 1.4 million enlistees) and how many have been killed or wounded in combat. Hasan probably wouldn't appear on such a list, because he didn't specify a religion in his Army file.
It will take years to ease the trauma Fort Hood suffered Thursday. The Army will have to deploy more psychiatrists to deal with the surge of PTSD cases sure to come. The post recently has taken steps to ease stress on the home front, including creating "Phantom Family Time." It occurs every Thursday at 3 p.m. That was 86 minutes after one of those psychiatrists dispatched to central Texas to help ailing troops instead began shooting and shouting "Allahu akbar" God is great at those counting on him for solace.
With reporting by Bobby Ghosh / Washington; Hilary Hylton / Fort Hood; and Karen Tumulty / San Antonio