Apr 4 4:27 PM

'Beyond 140': Iraq war vet Michael Prysner on the Fort Hood shooting

A single bouquet of roses sits at the foot of the main gate of Fort Hood on Thursday, April 3, 2014, in Killeen, Texas.
Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Twitter helps us find those with a story to tell, but it seldom tells the whole story.

"Beyond 140" is an interview series from The Stream where we seek out intriguing tweets and ask the author to tell us what they can’t say in 140 characters.


Michael Prysner is a former U.S. Army corporal who spent 12 months in the Iraq War, beginning with the invasion in March 2003. Prysner’s passionate and provocative tweets caught our eye as the shooting at Fort Hood unfolded Wednesday. Iraq War veteran Ivan Lopez, who was being treated for mental health issues, was identified as the shooter and killed three people before taking his own life.

We asked Prysner to elaborate on his tweets about problems he witnessed at the U.S. military post and the inadequate treatment of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

After his time in the military, Prysner became a commentator and organizer against U.S. wars and mistreatment of veterans. In 2009 he and other young service members formed "March Forward!" – a progressive organization of veterans and GIs. He is also on the National Board of Directors of Veterans For Peace.  


Could you describe your experience in Fort Hood and your impressions of PTSD care there? What brought you to Fort Hood and what did you see?

Pysner: I’ve traveled to Fort Hood a couple times to help organize soldiers and recently-discharged veterans to advocate for better mental health care, since our officers and politicians have so far refused to help. 

Like at other bases I’ve visited, I met so many soldiers on the brink of total self-destruction. I went with some soldiers to their mental health appointments on base. These were not soldiers who were being passive about their mental health issues, or trying to “man up” and ignore it as our commanders would order. They were soldiers who were begging for help, desperately trying to seek treatment and solutions to the issues they were dealing with, usually having to fight with counselors and staff to get the proper appointments. 

I met so many soldiers on the brink of total self-destruction.

The issues I witnessed can be summed up into a few very common points for soldiers seeking mental health care:

1. An assumption that the soldier is lying about their mental health issues. Soldiers have been punished for “malingering” – lying to get out of work. Even if they try to keep it secret, many soldiers are punished for displaying symptoms of PTSD.

2. A culture of humiliation and ridicule for soldiers seeking help, especially coming from commanding officers. I’ve spoken with many soldiers who have been publicly ridiculed in their units after seeking treatment.

3. A military policy of trying as hard as possible to deny that the soldier has PTSD (often accusing them of having a “pre-existing condition” or doubting their trauma).

4. If you’re lucky enough to get help, treatment programs are largely considered a joke by soldiers, and they are often dominated by a laundry list of psychotropic drugs, which many believe to cause way more problems

5. A long, frustrating process of being discharged, which could take years, all while in a unit being treated badly and with inadequate treatment. Many kill themselves during this discharge process. Many soldiers with PTSD are forced to deploy again to combat.


Are the problems at Fort Hood unique or is it just a difference in scale?

Prysner: The scale is different because the base is so large. The crisis in mental health treatment is endemic to the entire military. Other bases, such as Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Fort Carson, Fort Bliss, have come in the media spotlight after soldiers have helped expose treatment on base. 

[The Pentagon and Washington] respond to media pressure by just giving speeches about “supporting troops” and “caring for veterans.”

It’s important to note that this suicide epidemic and crisis in mental health care is no secret. For many years, the shocking rate of suicides, mass PTSD diagnoses and scandals around mistreatment have been made blatantly obvious to the Pentagon and Washington. They respond to media pressure by just giving speeches about “supporting troops” and “caring for veterans.” 

The fact is that this has been a real emergency situation for so, so long. Our “leaders” have made very clear that they are either unwilling or incapable of taking any meaningful action to address this horrific crisis facing our community.


What do you see this case drawing attention to? 

Prysner: Enlisted soldiers on all sides of the political spectrum will agree: the officers, by and large, only care about their own careers, and are willing to throw any of us under the bus to protect their lifestyles.

When it comes to the suicide epidemic, the military brass treats our community with disdain. Some have been very open about their feelings. Top commander of Fort Bliss (right near Fort Hood in El Paso, Texas) Major General Dana Pittard wrote in an official blog post: “I am personally fed up with soldiers who are choosing to take their own lives so that others can clean up their mess... suicide is an absolutely selfish act... be an adult and deal with your problems like the rest of us.”

Col. Dallas Homas, commander of health care at Fort Lewis, was relieved after soldiers exposed that he was having his subordinates intentionally refuse to diagnose soldiers with PTSD to “save money.”

Officers want to get promoted. Having a high number of “non-deployable” troops for mental health issues reflects poorly on their promotion, so they often try to block soldiers on that basis. 

Enlisted soldiers on all sides of the political spectrum will agree: the officers, by and large, only care about their own careers, and are willing to throw any of us under the bus to protect their lifestyles.

Officers in charge of mental health facilities and treatment display the usual incompetence and carelessness the officer corps is famous for, and have been exposed for cost-cutting at wounded soldiers' expense as well as funding worthless programs pitched by their defense contractor friends. And you can only turn to other officers for help.

Commanding officers are often the biggest barriers to us receiving help and adequate treatment. In this situation, they’re concerned that even more heat will be brought on them for their complete failure to care for the soldiers they’re responsible for. 

And we’ve already seen them do what they can to shift the blame, saying Ivan Lopez was “only in Iraq for four months,” asserting that he “was not a wounded warrior,” “was not diagnosed with PTSD.” 

This is what they do whenever the crisis is exposed: make excuses about how it’s our fault, not theirs.


Could you tell us more about the Warrior Transition Brigade? What goes on in these units? What are the outcomes? What is its reputation? Is it failing troops with PTSD?

Prysner: If a soldier is assigned to the Warrior Transition Brigade, it means that they are in the process of being medically discharged for physical or psychological injuries that have debilitated them in some way. 

Talking to soldiers in Warrior Transition, you hear the common experience of an arduous, dragged-up experience, often with no end in sight. For example, a friend of mine waiting to be medically discharged would be told to wait a couple months for his discharge paperwork, but whenever the time came, he would be told the paperwork was lost or incomplete and to wait a few more months. 

For soldiers trying to work through their trauma and get their lives on track, this extremely frustrating process that can seem impossible to escape. It leads to so much desperation and hopelessness among wounded soldiers because of a broken and uncaring system. Just look at Ivan Lopez: in Iraq in 2011, but “still being assessed” for PTSD?


What should the lessons be from the two Fort Hood shootings, taken together? 

Prysner: Well I think the two shootings are so different for many reasons. But one thing is clear from both incidents and the issue as a whole: the mental health care system in the U.S. military is a pit of misery and despair. 

Ivan Lopez is just another drop in the ocean of disasters under the care of our commanders.

The military commanders want everybody to focus on how Ivan Lopez couldn’t possibly have had PTSD. They want everybody to focus on how some soldiers enter the military with psychological problems already. But what is on full display is that the people in the care of Army mental health are killing themselves in historic numbers.  

Regardless of why they have mental health problems, they are the responsibility of their command —they signed their life away to the military. And that military, whose life we placed our hands in, is failing us. Soldiers have no other recourse. They have nowhere else to turn for help. The results of this mental health system speak for themselves. Ivan Lopez is just another drop in the ocean of disasters under the care of our commanders. 


Do you have any closing words for veterans suffering from PTSD? 

Prysner: First and foremost, you’re never alone, even though it may seem that way. There is a big community of us that have found each other and support each other. Don’t give up. 

Second, there is no longer any question that we cannot rely on our elected officials or military commanders to do anything to help this situation. They have shown that they are not on our side. The only progress that has been made has been from veterans and service members organizing together and demanding better treatment. Many heroic efforts have taken place over the years. If you’re outraged by this issue or trapped in a bad situation yourself, there is a community of veterans who are actively working to really change things — and we need your help. 

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