The massacre at Ft. Hood two years ago stunned the nation in its cold-blooded calculation. The high body count was just as shocking as the fact soldiers were killed not in combat, but on the grounds of a military installation. Before the slain soldiers were buried, many in the media speculated on a link between combat stress and the shooting, the correlation being that war trauma had driven a soldier to commit those crimes.
When news reports finally explained that Nidal Hasan hadn’t deployed during his Army career, the narrative shifted to secondary PTSD. The thought was that his work as a psychiatrist could have caused it. The reality, however, was that Hasan’s personal beliefs about the United States and the military were among the chief motivations behind the killings. Taken together, the prevailing narrative from those early reports—intentional or not—was this: Post-traumatic stress is a strong factor in violent crimes, and anyone who has deployed to a combat zone is capable of the same.
That narrative—fairly common since John Rambo hit movie screens in 1982—bubbled to the surface once again with the killing of Park Ranger Margaret Anderson on January 1st by Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24 year-old Iraq Veteran. Within hours of the Rainier shooting, journalists and writers clamored to mention Barnes’ war record, combat stress, and even his duty station in a dizzying effort to find a connection:
The problem? It wasn’t true.
As more information became available on Barnes, it grew clear that his troubles had little to do with his service in Iraq or his assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. According to The Seattle Times, Barnes was apparently disturbed before he entered the Army—having been expelled from school as a teenager. Additionally, military records show Barnes served in a headquarters communications job in Iraq. A spokesman at Lewis-McChord told the Times there was no record of Barnes having received a Combat Action Badge, indicating he probably never came under fire in Iraq.*
While violence is undoubtedly a potential consequence of war-related trauma, highly publicized crimes by active duty members and Veterans cast the overwhelming majority of law abiding Vets in a horrifying—and typically unfair—light. As one Army officer pointed out recently, sensational stories devoid of context (like those about Barnes) inhibit the ability for people to assess likelihood and frequency in a given population. He cites the availability heuristic, which says people “predict the frequency of an event, or a proportion within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind.”
When I asked her today, VA clinical psychologist Dr. Sonja Batten said that “despite this image in pop culture of the dangerous, unstable Veteran, there is no direct, causal link between combat-related PTSD and the type of violence shown at Mt. Rainier. Although PTSD is associated with increased anger and irritability in some individuals—whether civilians or Veterans—this sort of negative portrayal of Veterans is unfair and does a disservice to those individuals who have served our country. We work every day in VA to dispel these negative and inaccurate stereotypes.”
In other words, the misguided and incorrect correlation between military service and violent crimes like murder can lead to damaging stereotypes that can inhibit the success of Vets once they leave the military. The Texas Veterans Commission says some employers have reservations about hiring Veterans because they may show signs of post-traumatic signs in the workplace. Hiring managers may think they’re getting a Travis Bickle instead of a “Sully” Sullenberger.
In an MSNBC article about the Mt. Rainier shooting, reporter Alex Johnson connected Barnes to the “deeply troubled base” of Joint Base Lewis-McChord. While he later walked the piece back, his original reporting joined the media-constructed narrative that JBLM is in crisis without offering a valid explanation why. There were no mentions of inadequate mental health services or of a distinct culture of the base that would indicate a trend of violence—only some data showing that violent incidents happen there and in the surrounding communities.
But Johnson made no mention that those who murder are overwhelmingly men between 15-30 years old, and that men make up 92 percent of the U.S. Veteran population. If you accept that folks in the military represent a cross section of society, it will always attract the best and the worst our nation has to offer, from Sal Giunta to Benjamin Barnes.
That simple reality didn’t jive with Johnson, whose angle wasn’t helped by the fact that, despite problems with violence around the base, Veterans in general are incarcerated at half the rate of non-Vets.
I’m a former infantryman who saw combat in Iraq. I was based at JBLM my entire Army enlistment. And I know dozens of those just like me—representing a larger sample than that from which Johnson and his cohorts seemed to draw. All of us are men and most of us are between 25 and 35 years old, like Barnes. And many of us dealt with the residual effects of combat trauma, like hyper-vigilance, an inconveniently short temper, and substance abuse. As far as I know, none are guilty of murder or any violent crimes. Unless evil spirits inhabit the base, I see no connection between that facility and the murderous tendency of one of its former dwellers.
To his credit, Johnson published an update with a warning from Brandon Friedman, my boss and fellow combat Veteran. Friedman cautioned against linking post-traumatic stress to Barnes’ behavior before facts were established, adding that “having PTSD doesn’t signify a propensity to murder Americans.”
We must confront the serious issues of mental health that affect those who served. Post-traumatic stress is one of the most common subjects on this blog—and one of the most vital aspects of VA’s presence online has been connecting Veterans in crisis with support services. At the same time, Veterans, the public, and the media must do two things.
First, we must step out of the feedback loop that both feeds and informs the stereotype of the broken, mentally unstable Vet. The damaging caricature proved to be difficult for Vietnam Vets to overcome. And with a new generation coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, history will repeat itself until we take a moment and realize that faulty assumptions are dangerous and that anecdotal, sensationalist conclusions are designed to help sell newspapers and generate hits rather than responsibly inform.
Second, we must overcome the availability heuristic by keeping perspective on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress and, more importantly, violence committed by those who experience it. A 2008 RAND study estimated that 18.5 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans have symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression. But the vast majority of folks with post-traumatic stress recover successfully with support from family, friends, community, and effective treatment. PTSD and other mental health issues don’t just lead to challenges, but also to post-traumatic growth for many people. And that’s a story that needs to be told more often.
The rush to connect Barnes’ wartime service to his horrific crime makes for good drama but bad journalism. There are serious mental health consequences that stem from serving in the line of fire, but we do a disservice to those who suffer from those problems—as well as those who do not. Our communities need the experience and skills Veterans bring now more than ever before. But before that happens, we must chase away the lurid cloud of stereotypes and conjecture that hang over Veterans as they try to find their way after war.
If you feel you might be struggling with post-traumatic stress, visit our PTSD resource directory for information on symptoms, treatments, issues specific to female Veterans, and more. For immediate help, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. It’s open day and night, along with our online chat. If you prefer text messaging, send a message to 838255.
*Update – 1/9/2012: We’ve received some feedback on this. Some folks took it to mean that a Veteran can’t have post-traumatic stress unless they were in direct combat. Of course, that isn’t the case. A surgeon inside the wire who deals with horrible injuries or a mechanic who withstands daily mortar strikes can be just as susceptible as any infantryman. A recruit could even be subject to PTSD in the event of military sexual trauma. We don’t believe PTSD is an injury that only occurs in combat, but we could’ve explained that a bit better.