(Adds statement from family of suspected shooter, details in wounded)
By Lisa Maria Garza and Eileen O'Grady
FORT HOOD, Texas, April 4 (Reuters) - The three people killed in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas were all male soldiers in their 30s, friends and family said on Friday, as the military searched for a motive behind the second mass shooting in five years at the massive Army base.
Ivan Lopez, a 34-year-old soldier battling mental illness, is suspected of killing the three and wounding 16 others with a recently purchased pistol before turning the gun on himself at Fort Hood on Wednesday.
Among the victims was Army Sergeant Timothy Owens, 37, a recently married native of Effingham, Illinois, who was shot in the chest at close range, his mother-in-law told the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper.
Sgt. First Class Danny Ferguson, 39, from Florida, had just returned from Afghanistan and died while trying to barricade a door to keep the shooter away, his fiancée and fellow soldier Kristen Haley told Tampa broadcaster WTSP-TV. She was nearby when the shooting started.
"If he wasn't the one standing there holding those doors closed, that shooter would have been able to get through and shoot everyone else," she told WTSP-TV.
The third fatality was Carlos Lazaney, 38, of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, the city's mayor told NBC News on Friday.
The suspected shooter Lopez enlisted in 2008 and had served two tours of duty abroad, including four months in Iraq in 2011, military officials said. He had no direct involvement in combat and had not been wounded.
There was a strong possibility a verbal altercation with another soldier or soldiers preceded the shooting, Lieutenant General Mark Milley told reporters on Thursday, adding there was no indication that he targeted specific people.
The Lopez family, who live in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico, said in a statement that it is "dismayed" by the tragic events.
"This is a very painful situation," the father of Ivan Lopez said in the statement. "I ask for prayers for the affected families."
"My son could not have been in sound mind. He was not that way," he said.
'SOMETHING'S GONE WRONG'
The rampage is the third shooting at a military base in the United States in about six months that, along with a series of shootings in public places, such as schools and malls, has intensified a national debate over gun violence.
It has also raised questions about security at U.S. military installations, such as Fort Hood, home to some 45,000 soldiers and airmen assigned to the 335-square-mile (870-square-km) base, along with thousands of civilian employees.
"Obviously we have a gap. Anytime we lose an individual, something's gone wrong," U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters in Hawaii on Thursday.
Military officials have so far ruled out terrorism as the reason for the attack.
Lopez had been treated for depression and anxiety. He was being evaluated to see if he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, military officials said.
The shooting sent shockwaves through the Central Texas community in Killeen, where the base is located, that is still reeling from a 2009 attack in which a former Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan, shot dead 13 people and wounded 32 others.
Lopez, originally from Puerto Rico, had recently bought the gun he used, a Smith & Wesson .45-caliber pistol, at Guns Galore, the same store in Killeen where Hasan purchased the weapon he used in his shooting spree.
All of the wounded shooting victims were showing signs of improvement, Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple said.
"The three patients previously listed in critical condition have been upgraded to fair condition and are expected to remain in the hospital for the next several days," it said in a statement on Friday.
Five patients have been discharged, with one patient staying on through Friday for tests. (Additional reporting by Chris Francescani and Victoria Cavaliere in New York and Ana Martinez in Guayanilla, Puerto Rico; Writing by Jon Herskovitz)