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On Military Bases, the Dangers Increasingly Come From the Inside

On Military Bases, the Dangers Increasingly Come From the Inside

HOUSTON — The deadliest mass shooting at an American military base came in November 2009 at Fort Hood in Texas, where a military psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, killed 12 soldiers and one civilian in what he described as an attempt to protect Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.

And then, after all the soul searching and examination of the tragedy, it happened again four years later at the very same base, when an Army specialist, Ivan A. Lopez, killed three soldiers and wounded 12 others in a shooting in April 2014.

The Army’s 105-page report on the second Fort Hood attack offered a sobering analysis, hinting at the scope of the military’s problems in identifying possible assailants and preventing mass shootings on bases. It found that Specialist Lopez, 34, was struggling with a host of issues — including the death of relatives, financial troubles, a spiritual crisis and a dispute with his superiors over the handling of his request for leave. But his military service and medical history “offer no ready explanations or clear indicators of future violent behavior,” the report’s author, Lt. Gen. Joseph E. Martz, wrote, concluding that the Army could not have prevented the shooting.

Now, in the wake of two attacks — a shooting on Friday by a Saudi trainee who left three people dead at Naval Air Station Pensacola, and one on Wednesday, in which a sailor in Hawaii shot and killed two shipyard workers and wounded another at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard — military officials are again confronting just how vexing and persistent such incidents have become.

In different ways, the many shootings reflect both the complications of banning private weapons from places where military personnel train to fight the nation’s wars and the difficulties of monitoring a population whose members are often dealing with extraordinary levels of stress. To ensure that no unauthorized weapon ends up on a base, military installations would need to be outfitted with T.S.A.-style screening — a level of security and added expense that military officials are unlikely to embrace.

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he was monitoring developments on the two recent attacks and was “considering several steps to ensure the security of our military installations and the safety of our service members and their families.”

A review of media reports by The New York Times found 30 shootings and other violent episodes at American military installations since the Fort Hood attack in 2009. An F.B.I. active-shooter study found that from 2010 to 2013 five shootings on military property resulted in 27 people being killed and 43 wounded. Two suspects had prior military service and one was active-duty, but the two others had no military experience.

This year alone, the Pensacola attack was at least the seventh shooting at a military base. In the span of four weeks in March and April, three separate shootings left three dead at bases in South Carolina, Virginia and California.

On March 15, a Marine was found shot to death while on guard duty at a Marine Corps base in Southern California. Three weeks later, on April 5, a female Navy sailor was wounded in a shooting in the parking lot of a Virginia Beach base and the sailor who shot her was killed by security officers. Days later, on April 15, a Marine corporal was shot to death in a barracks at a South Carolina base and another Marine corporal was taken into custody.

“It’s depressing, it’s saddening and, in many ways, it’s infuriating,” said Neal M. Sher, a lawyer representing victims and their families in the first Fort Hood attack in an ongoing lawsuit accusing Pentagon and federal officials of knowing Major Hasan was a security threat and failing to act before the attack. “You would think that one place that would be almost immune from these sorts of attacks would be a military base.”

The military shootings have been so frequent that there are eerie parallels between some of them. In the 2014 attack at Fort Hood, Specialist Lopez bought his .45-caliber handgun at the same gun shop near the base where Major Hasan bought the weapon he used in 2009. Many of the gunmen have taken their own lives, as the one did in the Pearl Harbor shipyard attack and as Specialist Lopez did.

But the military attacks are as varied as any other mass shootings in the country, with their own motives and circumstances. Some of the suspects, like the one in Friday’s shooting, are not even American service members, an indicator of the wide array of civilians and others who are on military bases at any given moment. The gunman in the attack on Friday was a Saudi national who was a member of the Saudi Air Force and who was on the base for aviation training, officials said.

In some ways, the military shootings reflect the larger issue of mass shootings in America. Just as lawmakers and law enforcement officials struggle to prevent violent attacks in schools, workplaces and places of worship, so has the military had difficulty in identifying threats and acting before it’s too late.

After so many incidents, military officials have now embraced active-shooter preparedness and training, focusing on the issue as much as schools and other workplaces and institutions. One Air Force webpage on active shooters defines the meaning of a “lockdown” and lays out the “actions to consider” before, during and after an incident.

“Take note of the two nearest exits in any facility you visit,” the webpage instructs.

Still, many question whether the military has done enough to ensure that soldiers and sailors are safe while on base. One of the issues involves guns.

Weapons rules at the nation’s military bases prohibit soldiers and sailors who are not police officers or security personnel from carrying their personal firearms while on post, either concealed or unconcealed. In Texas, in particular, soldiers with state-issued concealed-handgun licenses are free to walk into many restaurants and other public places off base while armed with their privately owned firearms. But while on base, no such licenses are honored and no such weapons are allowed.

Some soldiers and gun-rights advocates have called for those rules to be changed, arguing that some of the attacks could have been prevented had soldiers had access to their privately owned firearms.

One soldier who survived Specialist Lopez’s attack at Fort Hood in 2014, First Lt. Patrick Cook, warned Texas lawmakers that more shootings would happen unless soldiers were allowed to carry weapons.

In a letter that was read to a State Senate committee in the Texas Legislature, Lieutenant Cook, who has a state license to carry a handgun, wrote that when the shots first rang out, he reached to his belt “for something that wasn’t there,” and he hid in a room as another soldier barricading the door was shot and killed by Specialist Lopez.

“This will happen again, and again until we learn the lesson that suppressing the bearing of arms doesn’t prevent horrific crimes, it invites them,” Lieutenant Cook wrote in the letter.

Many military leaders and gun-control supporters said the Pentagon rules should not be loosened, and are intended to prevent accidental shootings as well as suicides.

In 2016, General Mark A. Milley, who was then the Army’s chief of staff and is now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, told members of Congress that he opposed allowing soldiers to carry their own concealed weapons on bases. He told lawmakers there was “adequate law enforcement” to respond to incidents on bases and that in the 2009 Fort Hood attack, officers responded within eight minutes. He said he was not convinced that “carrying privately owned weapons would have stopped that individual.”

A Department of Defense directive in 2016 said base commanders may grant permission for the carrying of personal weapons, but it has not been widely applied.

Last year, President Trump said in a speech that he would review policies that prohibit soldiers from carrying personal weapons on bases. “We’re going to look at that whole military base gun-free zone,” Mr. Trump said. “If we can’t have our military holding guns, it’s pretty bad.”

A 19-year-old seaman at the Pensacola base who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press said the pair of shootings on bases this week had “spooked” him, and made him reconsider his own safety.

“You think they’d be safe, but they’re really not,” he said as he sheltered in place on Friday morning. “You have an ID, you can get right in. You could hide a gun in your trunk or anything along those lines.”

John Ismay and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting from New York. Susan Beachy contributed research.


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