Major Nidal Malik Hasan: Soldiers' psychiatrist who heard frontline stories

Unhappy soldier who faced deployment to Iraq and did not want to see what his patients had described

by Ewen MacAskill
The Guardian, 6 November 2009

Violence in the US involving soldiers is commonplace, with a rise in domestic abuse, murder and suicide since the wars began in Afghanistan and Iraq. But there is nothing commonplace about Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the soldier allegedly responsible for the biggest mass killing at a military base in the US.

He was not a soldier returning from deployment in either Iraq or Afghanistan, suffering from stress or combat fatigue. Hasan, although 39 years old, has never served in a war zone. Instead, his horror of war came secondhand. He was a psychiatrist who listened to the harrowing stories of his comrades at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC, and latterly at Forth, Texas.

Unusually for a soldier, Hasan appeared to have little taste for violence, at least up until yesterday. His cousin, Nader Hasan, said: "He was someone who did not enjoy going to the firing range." That may have been a consequence of the stories he had heard in the hospital wards from the returning soldiers.

Hasan became an unhappy soldier as his career progressed, according to his family and colleagues.

Nader said his cousin, though born in America, had suffered harassment from fellow soldiers who questioned his loyalty to the US and commented on his Middle East ethnicity. As a Muslim, he was upset at the killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Nader confirmed that he had been resisting deployment in either war zone.

He had been scheduled for deployment to Iraq at the end of the year and had told colleagues repeatedly he did not want to go. He felt trapped, looking at ways to buy his way out, even going to the extent of hiring a lawyer to see if he could leave military service honourably.

After a killing on this scale, there will inevitably be questions about whether the fact that Hasan was a Muslim was a factor, and whether the incident will fuel tension between Muslims and non-Muslims in the US military.

There was already tension, but on a lesser scale, mainly because it was overshadowed by the invasion of Iraq, when Sergeant Hasan Akbar in 2003 threw a grenade into a tent of his comrades in Kuwait. He was sentenced two years later to death and the prosecution claimed he had been motivated by Islamist extremism.

The case of Major Nidal Malik Hasan is much more complicated, the motivation less clear. He was born in Arlington, Virginia, close to Washington DC. He was brought up at Roanoke, in rural Virginia, the son of Palestinians from a village near Jerusalem. He went to Virginia Tech, where he joined the Officer Training Corps and graduated with a degree in biochemistry. From there, against his family's wishes, he joined the military, who sent him to study psychiatry at the United Services University of the Health Sciences, just outside Washington DC, graduating in 2001.

He served at Walter Reed, one of the main hospitals in the US for soldiers recovering from physical and mental illness. He was promoted in May and transferred from Walter Reed to Fort Hood. He was said to be single, with no children.

His problem may have been one of alienation, as his family suggested yesterday, a common complaint of recent or second-generation immigrants, as was the case of the Virginia Tech shooter three years ago, whose family was South Korean.

A retired colonel, Terry Lee, who worked beside Hasan in a ward, said he had been unhappy about US foreign policy and had made several comments that the US should not be in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lee cited an incident earlier this year as having had a big influence on Hasan a fatal shooting at an army recruiting base in Little Rock, Arkansas. The suspect, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, faces trial for murder.

The FBI had investigated postings on the social website Scribd in which a writer describing himself as Nidal Hasan made a case in apparent defence of suicide bombers. Among other musings, he wrote: "If one suicide bomber can kill 100 enemy soldiers because they were caught off guard that would be considered a strategic victory." But the FBI did not pursue it, unsure whether it was Major Hasan and how seriously the writer was advocating action.

One of the ironies of yesterday's killings was that while the gunman was on the rampage at Fort Hood, military veterans were in Washington campaigning for more help in dealing with mental health problems, mainly for returning soldiers.

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said that he and others had warned that an incident such as the one which unfolded yesterday had been on the cards for a long time. "We warned the military about this. We warned the military about the need to increase the number of mental health care providers," he said. "We warned the military about lowering recruiting standards, about the medical exams for soldiers coming back from the war and needing mental health care and brain injury exams.

"We have been working tirelessly to try to prevent this from happening," he said. "This is so horrible. This is a tragedy."

The problem is that Hasan was not a damaged soldier, but one of the mental healthcare providers that Sullivan was pressing the military to recruit more of.

The US military is dealing with a rising number of stress-related homicides and suicides among soldiers who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, or have returned from duty in those conflicts. Many troops are on their third or fourth tour of combat. Some studies suggest that about 15% of soldiers returning from Iraq suffer from emotional problems.

Last year there were 128 confirmed suicides by serving US army personnel, and 41 by serving marines the highest number since records began in 1980.Another 15 army deaths were still under investigation when the figures were released in February. The confirmed rate of army suicides was 20.2 per 100,000 last year. In 2002, the army suicide rate was just 9.8 per 100,000. The last time it exceeded the civilian rate was at the height of the Vietnam war.

Hasan did not fit the classic pattern of a stressed soldier. But someone listening day after day to troops describing the tension and carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan could end up as damaged as those facing combat at first hand.