The Army has done "a great deal since the tragedies at Fort Hood in 2009" to track the "insider threat but something happened, something went wrong, and we need to know what that was," Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh told lawmakers April 3.
McHugh was responding to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, regarding the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, April 2, which left four dead, including the alleged gunman, Spc. Ivan Antonio Lopez, who committed suicide, and 16 others injured, three critically.
Fort Hood was the scene of another mass shooting in November 2009 when then-Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 and injured others.
By tracking possible insider threats, the secretary was referring to proactive measures like behavioral health screenings that are done at least annually and more often when Soldiers deploy. Those screening could point to tendencies to violence, he said.
McHugh explained to lawmakers that there are several types of behavioral health assessment "touch points." Assessments are conducted for Soldiers 180 days prior to deployment, within 90 days, when they get to theater, 30 days after redeployment, 90 days after redeployment, and then for every Soldier irrespective of their deployment status, they get an annual screening.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, who also testified at the hearing, added that the number of behavior health counselors and screening has increased significantly over the last five years -- about 150 percent. "So we've made some really good progress here."
McHugh remarked: "If we failed in some way against our current policies, we need to be honest with ourselves and with you and hold ourselves accountable. But if we identify new challenges, new threats we hadn't recognized before, we have to put into place programs to respond to them."
Odierno agreed that finding insider threats is challenging and he pointed out what he called "the biggest problem we have."
That problem, he said is balancing the need to share information with commanders and the chain of command, with protecting an individual's right to privacy. "It's a real dilemma."
Without knowing about insider threats, commanders and others in the chain of command don't know when a problem exists.
"So the secretary and I are really doing the best we can to come up with processes that allow us to share information," he said, "because in a lot of cases, that's the problem. There is some limitation to what we can do. And we're trying to do the best we can."
The Catch-22 here is that Soldiers may not come forward with mental health problems if their privacy concerns are not addressed. This raises the issue of "stigma."
"The challenges we face … is that we are doing everything we can to de-stigmatice seeking help," McHugh said.
The chief held out a solution, suggesting that the Army, along with members of Congress, can work together on creating ways for better information sharing to have "the ability to really understand when Soldiers are having problems," while addressing the need for confidentiality.
Odierno pointed out that the alleged shooter was screened and was receiving counseling, "so in a lot of ways the system worked. But obviously it didn't work completely because in the end, he made some decisions that obviously cost other people's lives."
McHugh added: "We've really increased our behavioral health encounters in the Army and we view that as positive. Folks are reaching out more. They're asking for help more voluntarily. But then, sometimes things happen, like happened yesterday, that we fail to understand.
"So we're trying to keep as close a watch on our Soldiers as we can," he continued, "but clearly, we believe there are more things we can do to identify problems in the earliest stages of their development."
Odierno added that the Army has recently put behavioral specialists into brigades, something not done before.
However, some Soldiers would rather get behavioral health off-post, he said, meaning they would rather avoid the possibility of being identified by their unit as someone with a mental health issue.
Funding off-post behavioral health could be something the Army will look into, he added.
Odierno concluded: Behavioral health issues are "something we're going to have to deal with for a very long time, and that's a consequence of 13 years of war. And so, we're going to have to make sure that we have the systems in place to do this."