Recently, the Veteran community has been forced to fight back on a disturbing narrative: Veterans are dangerous, violent people that society should be wary of. It doesn’t take much for some media outlets to push this agenda either. It seems all they need is one person, who happened to serve in the military at any time, to commit a heinous act, and the sensationalist headlines driving high ratings start pouring in.
Today, The Opinion Pages of the New York Times posted a story by Kathleen Belew that claims “the return of [Veterans] from combat appears to correlate more closely with Klan membership than any other historical factor,” and linked the murder of three innocent people in Kansas by one man to a generation of Vietnam Veterans.
Even though she admits “the number of Vietnam [Veterans] in that movement was small” and “a vast majority of veterans are neither violent nor mentally ill” she continues disparaging Veterans in general. Ms. Belew interprets information from a nine-page Department of Homeland Security report, which essentially connects extremist views to disillusionment and warns that people who feel ostracized by society can be susceptible to recruitment by radical groups (something we see in other aspects of society), and uses it to promote her view that Veterans are inherently volatile due to their military service and have contributed to the growth of white-supremacist groups in the United States.
Of course hate groups with paramilitary ambitions seek out those with military experience to swell their ranks. I suppose it’s also worthy to mention that large corporations seek out IRS trained accountants to help them with taxes, or political lobbying firms recruit former government executives to help them pass legislation.
The question that Ms. Belew doesn’t ask is why these Veterans felt disillusioned in the first place, and were vulnerable to predatory recruitment. She ignores the social climate around them at the time of their return. She’s been studying these radical groups since 2006, but as a historian she should have dug deeper to find the root cause of this anomaly. Instead she opted for an alarming story.
Imagine, for a second, if she had done the same thing to any other group of people. What would that look like?
Whether she is aware of it or not, Ms. Belew is doing great harm with this piece. She may think she is informing her audience, but she’s actually perpetuating vicious stereotypes that make it harder for Veterans to reintegrate successfully into their communities in the first place. What does she think employers should tell a Veteran applying for work after reading her post? “Sorry, but I can’t hire a person who is one white-supremacist pamphlet away from joining the Klan”?
Articles and headlines like these are the reason why many Veterans take great care in disclosing their service status at job interviews and resumes.
To be quite honest, we’re getting tired of reading stories like these, and not just because we’re Veterans who served in combat, or even because correlating military service and deviancy is irresponsible. No, it’s because some people see the exploitation of combat Veterans as a way to push clicks, likes and shares. In Belew’s piece, Veterans are made out to be potential monsters. Next week, we’re knights in shining armor.
There are 22 million Veterans in this country, and we just wish somebody in the media would make up their minds on whether we’re all heroes (we’re not) or whether we’re all ticking time bombs (we’re not). Do I clap for the returning Veteran at the airport, or hide my family? Which is it? What story are we telling this week?
The truth is, for better or worse, our community is as diverse as the general American population. The majority of us want nothing more than to be productive members of our communities, and while there will be some bad apples among us (like in any demographic), it shouldn’t diminish our overall contributions to society.
We agree in Belew’s assessment that “It would be irresponsible to overlook the high rates of combat trauma among the 2.4 million Americans who have served in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the full impact of which has not yet materialized.” However, it is even further irresponsible to allude that Veterans with combat trauma are joining far-right organizations en masse.
So let’s get a few things straight: Veterans are not inherently murderous extremists or righteous saints, they are and have always been just like most Americans who seek a good job, safe community and the opportunity for them and their families to succeed in this country. Do not let the deranged actions of a few who happen to be Veterans define the entire Veteran community.