Army sought ways to channel Hasan's absorption with Islam
Walter Reed psychiatrists ordered him to attend university lectures on religion

By Ann Scott Tyson and Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009

Army psychiatrists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who supervised Maj. Nidal M. Hasan's work as a psychiatric fellow tried to turn his growing preoccupation with religion and war into something productive by ordering him to attend a university lecture series on Islam, the Middle East and terrorism, according to a Walter Reed staff member familiar with Hasan's medical training.

The psychiatric staff at Walter Reed did not discuss kicking him out of the service, according to the staff member. In fact, Hasan was initially considered a good medical school candidate because he had spent time as an enlisted soldier and had cared for his siblings after his parents died, both attributes that supervisors believed indicated he had a healthy work ethic.

An Army official also said that Hasan, who is believed to have killed 13 people last week at Fort Hood, Tex., did not formally seek to leave the military as a conscientious objector or for any other reason. It is unclear whether Hasan, whose aunt has said he sought to leave the military, made informal efforts to leave through contacts with his immediate superiors, and if so how his chain of command at lower levels might have responded to such efforts.

But any formal request by Hasan to separate early would have been submitted to the Department of the Army, according to the official, who saw Hasan's file before it was recently sealed by Army investigators. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

The idea that Hasan attend the lectures, which he did late last year or early this year, came up during discussions among the psychiatric staffs of the hospital and the Army's medical university about what was perceived as Hasan's lack of productivity and his constant interest in Muslims whose religious beliefs conflicted with their military duties.

"You're at an institution of higher learning. He seems to want to do work in an area no one knows anything about," the staff member, who also requested anonymity because he had not been authorized to speak publicly, said of the order. "You don't want to close him down just because it's different."

Seen as gentle, polite

During those discussions, psychiatrists commented in passing about whether Hasan could be delusional or hurt fellow soldiers, but did not think he was dangerous and never took steps to have him evaluated either for mental fitness or as a security threat. On the contrary, his demeanor was regarded as gentle and polite, and he often responded to inquiries about his well-being by saying, "I'm doing well, thank God."

"He had his struggles, and he embraced his religion with such intensity that one wondered whether he" could have suffered from a form of "delusion," the staffer said. He cited as an example -- without speaking of Hasan in particular -- the belief that the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are against Muslims rather than against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's government and then insurgents in Iraq.

Hasan came to the attention of two joint terrorism task forces in December 2008, as he corresponded by e-mail with Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S. citizen and Islamic spiritual leader residing in Yemen who has exhorted followers to pursue violent jihad, or holy war. A Defense Department analyst on one of the task forces concluded that the chatter was innocent and in keeping with Hasan's research interests, two government officials said this week.

In 2007, addressing other physicians at Walter Reed, Hasan said that to avoid "adverse events," the military should allow Muslim soldiers to be released as conscientious objectors instead of fighting in wars against other Muslims. At the time of the shooting, Hasan was about to be deployed to Afghanistan, officials have said.

Did he seek a discharge?

After the shooting, his aunt Noel Hasan said her nephew had sought for several years to be discharged. She said he had consulted a lawyer about getting out of the service.

In an interview Tuesday, Hasan's criminal attorney, retired Col. John P. Galligan, declined to discuss whether his client had attempted to secure conscientious objector status or to leave the military.

Even if Hasan had sought to quit the Army over his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army almost certainly would have denied any such request, senior Army officials said. Hasan had a continuing obligation because the Army had provided him with medical training.

In a further indication that Hasan was not actively seeking formal discharge, he was evaluated by an Army promotion board in the spring of 2008 that endorsed his performance as an officer as patriotic, and elevated him from the rank of captain to major, a promotion that took place in May 2009, according to the official.

The Army faces a severe shortage of officers who hold the rank of major, as Hasan does, and that shortage is particularly acute in some medical branches. The Army this year is short about 2,000 majors needed to fill slots created as the service has grown in recent years, according to Army data. In the field of medical doctors, the Army lacks about 15 percent of the majors it needs, the data show.

To address the shortfall, virtually all Army captains are being promoted to major. The Army's promotion rate from captain to major has been well over 90 percent since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, leading some officers to describe the trend as the "no major left behind" program.

Hasan joined the Army in 1997, attended Army medical training and then worked as a psychiatry intern and resident at Walter Reed from 2003 until July of this year, when he was transferred to the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood. Hasan's last official performance evaluation took place in June of this year, according to an Army summary of his career known as an "officer record brief."

Maj. Gen. Gina S. Farrisee, the Army's personnel chief, said in an interview Monday that because of the ongoing investigation, she and other Army officials cannot discuss Hasan's specific situation. However, Farrisee said it would take an extraordinary circumstance -- such as debilitating illness or the death of a spouse -- for an officer with Hasan's rank and medical training to be allowed to resign before completing his or her service obligation. It would be "very, very unusual," said Paul Aswell, an Army personnel official. "I can't think of any in recent years."

Even after officers complete their service obligations, it is extremely rare for them to be allowed to leave immediately prior to deployments, Farrisee said. In the past three years, "we've had about three officers who asked to depart because their service obligation was over and then they did not deploy with the unit," said Farrisee, speaking of cases that came to the Department of the Army for approval.

The Army has received about 50 conscientious objector applications each year since 2001 from soldiers seeking either not to bear arms or to leave the service entirely because of religious or deeply held moral or ethical beliefs. Of those applications, a little more than half have been approved.

In the past three years, the Army board that decides whether to approve or disapprove such applications has not received any from Army officers with a remaining service obligation, according to the Army official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report

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