Media Report Finds Violence Rising Among Returning PTSD Soldiers
> 1/15/2008 10:39:54 AM

A minor media firestorm looks to erupt in response to the first in a recurring series of New York Times articles on the mental and emotional price of war. This entry in particular focuses on reportedly rising rates of violent crime committed by returning veterans who've presumably been so badly scarred by their horrendous battle experiences that they're driven to visit equally heinous acts on innocent civilians or fellow soldiers.

Focusing on just over 100 deaths both accidental and unmistakably evil, the Times has used every recorded killing committed by recent veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to illustrate the horrible product of post-traumatic stress disorder in its most severe form. In all but one case, the perpetrators were desperate young men unable to contain their impulses (one offender was a woman whose accomplice murdered her estranged husband). These soldiers were exhausted, demoralized, distrustful and given to fits of outright paranoia by their war experiences. The victims were strangers, loved ones, and fellow servicemen, and all of them should be alive today.

The Times obviously anticipated the waves of criticism aimed at their study by stating outright some of its many imperfections and tacitly acknowledging that it can provide very few definitive conclusions: many of these offenders' crimes bore no true relation to their time overseas, and judging the nature of that connection, if it does exist, is all but impossible barring intensive interviews with the soldiers themselves. When asked for rational explanations for their crimes, almost none could give any sort of precise answer. The brutal severity these crimes cannot go unnoticed, and for many Vietnam veterans and those who lived and worked with them, the story is hardly new. A long-term study of Vietnam veterans' success in reintegration revealed that a startling 50% of those with PTSD had been arrested at least once and that 1 in 3 were charged with multiple offenses. At one point in the mid-1980's, 1 in 5 American inmates was a Vietnam vet.

Contrary to the opinions of the fuming blog constituency, the Times has not directly advocated the idea that all, most, or even a significant minority of American soldiers returning from battle are hulking time bombs waiting to explode and leave trails of dead and wounded innocents in their wakes. The vast majority of veterans, while hardly unscathed by their time at war, return to become well-adjusted citizens, able to support their families and treasure the time spent serving theit country. These incidents cannot be used to draw damning generalizations about our military (or to attribute the same to other, politically opposed entities). They do not reflect on the intelligence, character or discipline of the average American service member. Critics are right to cast an analytical eye on such shocking front-page reports in our most popular newspaper, but the media should not shy away from these stories in the name of objectivity or reverence for our military. The more the public learns about this issue, the greater the outcry will surely become. And the horrific details, as stated above, help to illuminate the extremes born of extreme damage to the body, the brain and the morale.

The response of one returning Marine to the prospect of psychiatric help is telling: he refrained from undergoing evaluation so as not to hinder his chances at promotion, and his lawyer emphasized the prevalent "suck it up" attitude that colors a large swath of our armed forces. The thought that a condition could derail one's military career is understandably upsetting to these men, many of whom have very little occupational training for jobs outside the military. A discharged soldier suffering from PTSD, effectively laid off with a military pension, is often left with very few immediately attractive options.

The Times article feeds unavoidably into the realm of ongoing political debates regarding our current overseas conflicts, and blog response has been decidedly harsh on the anti-Times front. But their larger point has been made before and bears repeating: mental health screening processes for returning service members are woefully insufficient even though they have improved drastically in recent years. And the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder can destroy many lives beyond those of the soldiers themselves. If anyone deserves effective, immediate and publicly funded mental health care, it is the brave soldiers who've committed themselves to serving their country overseas. The most significant line in the entire report reads "Few of these 121 war veterans received more than a cursory mental health screening," and most of the soldiers who received relevant diagnoses were not adequately screened until the horrible damage was already done. The nature of their conditions, their previous histories or the nature of their combat experience should not factor into the equation. And anyone decrying the Times' treatment of these veterans while not simultaneously championing the considerable expansion of the military's mental health programs may need to examine their own positions more closely.

Compared to the disinterest shown to our returning Vietnam veterans, the military's current approach is a shining example of compassion. But it is clearly not enough. Soldiers report half-heartedly responding to questionnaires that do not venture into the darkest reaches of the war experiencel; these question-and-answer forms do not include follow-up assessments to check for late-onset PTSD, which is the most common and dramatic type created by combat. No reasoning can justify the crimes of passion and neglect highlighted by this article. And focusing on the soldiers as victims themselves should not detract from our shared empathy for those whose lives they so tragically destroyed. But if the image of a desperate soldier, blinded by anxiety and alcohol, shooting his wife before killing himself cannot inspire an even larger investment in the mental well-being of those who represent us overseas, perhaps nothing will.

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