WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced Thursday that he's appointed two former heads of the Army and the Navy to review what happened at Fort Hood, amid questions about whether political correctness and a shortage of mental health professionals drove the military to keep Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan in the Army longer than it should have.
Gates named former Army secretary Togo West and retired Adm. Vernon Clark, a former chief of naval operations, to lead a 45-day review of the circumstances surrounding the Fort Hood shootings. Hasan, 39, is suspected of shooting 55 people, killing 13 of them, at the Texas Army base on Nov. 5, days before he was supposed to deploy to Afghanistan.
West was Army secretary in the mid-1990s and later became secretary of veterans' affairs; Clark was the chief of naval operations from 2000 to 2005.
Gates also requested a "more in-depth, detailed assessment whether Army programs, policies and procedures reasonably could have prevented the shooting." It will be led by Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of the U.S. Army Europe, who returned to Washington this week to work on the review and will report his findings to West and Clark.
The review will go beyond what happened at Fort Hood to examine how the military identifies and addresses soldiers who may be threats to others; the military medical community's personnel practices; and how officials respond to mass casualty events.
"You go to the hospitals and you talk to the nurses and the doctors and those who care for these grievously wounded young men and women, and I can't imagine the burden on them of doing that all day, every day," Gates said. "One of the things, for their own benefit, if nothing else, is for us to take a look at how are we helping them deal with stress, given the circumstances that they face."
Gates has a history of firing officials found responsible for major blunders. In 2007, he dismissed the general responsible for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center after discovering that the facility had subpar housing for soldiers in its outpatient center.
Whether this investigation could lead to firings is unclear, however. In the days since the shooting, several reports from those who worked with Hasan said he often proselytized and that his superiors questioned his work ethic. Hasan's family members have charged that Hasan was often ridiculed and ostracized because of his Muslim faith.
A 2007 evaluation written by the top psychiatrist at Walter Reed, where Hasan was a resident, said that the faculty was concerned about his "professionalism and work ethic," according to the evaluation, which was first obtained by National Public Radio.
Hasan "demonstrates a pattern of poor judgment and a lack of professionalism," the evaluation said. Despite that, the Army sent Hasan to Fort Hood, the largest U.S military installation, and he had orders to go to Afghanistan for a year, his first deployment.
Hasan also sent several e-mails to radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki, but federal authorities never reported that to the Army. Although it doesn't appear that al Awlaki, whom the commission that investigated the 9/11 attacks called a "loose end," encouraged Hasan to engage in attacks, Attorney General Eric Holder Wednesday called the contacts "disturbing."
At the same time, the military, like the nation, is battling a shortage of mental health professionals. The Army has only 121 psychiatrists, and overall, the military has about 20 percent fewer mental health professionals than it needs, said Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Some worry that the shortage of mental health professionals, coupled with the hundreds of thousands of dollars the military spent over eight years to train Hasan, may have led the Army to keep him despite the apparent warning signs.
Quietly, some soldiers also worry that the Army may have been reluctant to pursue Hasan, whose family is Jordanian, because it didn't want to face charges of discriminating against an Arab and a Muslim as it fights two wars in Muslim-majority countries.
On Thursday, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., held the first congressional hearing on the shooting, during which several lawmakers called the attack terrorism. Lieberman called the shooting "a homegrown terrorist attack."
The hearing, however, didn't reveal much about the shooting because the Obama administration has said it won't provide key FBI officials because the investigation is ongoing.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009