From the New York Times, the first in a series ('War Torn') looking at some -- statistically but the slightest sliver of those who have served and returned without incident -- of our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been charged with or committed murder, murder/suicide, manslaughter, etc.
This is difficult information and should not be used to demonize our veterans. Rather, we need to use such accounts to better understand our collective role in not doing more to ensure our returning troops have all the tools and help necessary to make their post-combat deployments as successful as possible.
In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.
Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories. Lakewood, Wash.: “Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.” Pierre, S.D.: “Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.” Colorado Springs: “Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.”
Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.
The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.
Three-quarters of these veterans were still in the military at the time of the killing. More than half the killings involved guns, and the rest were stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bathtub drownings. Twenty-five offenders faced murder, manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving.
About a third of the victims were spouses, girlfriends, children or other relatives, among them 2-year-old Krisiauna Calaira Lewis, whose 20-year-old father slammed her against a wall when he was recuperating in Texas from a bombing near Falluja that blew off his foot and shook up his brain.
A quarter of the victims were fellow service members, including Specialist Richard Davis of the Army, who was stabbed repeatedly and then set ablaze, his body hidden in the woods by fellow soldiers a day after they all returned from Iraq.
And the rest were acquaintances or strangers, among them Noah P. Gamez, 21, who was breaking into a car at a Tucson motel when an Iraq combat veteran, also 21, caught him, shot him dead and then killed himself outside San Diego with one of several guns found in his car.
The Davis case mentioned above went on to be the basis of last year's must-see Paul Haggis film, 'In the Valley of Elah.'
The Pentagon does not keep track of such killings, most of which are prosecuted not by the military justice system but by civilian courts in state after state. Neither does the Justice Department.
To compile and analyze its list, The Times conducted a search of local news reports, examined police, court and military records and interviewed the defendants, their lawyers and families, the victims’ families and military and law enforcement officials.
This reporting most likely uncovered only the minimum number of such cases, given that not all killings, especially in big cities and on military bases, are reported publicly or in detail. Also, it was often not possible to determine the deployment history of other service members arrested on homicide charges.
The Times used the same methods to research homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans for the six years before and after the present wartime period began with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
This showed an 89 percent increase during the present wartime period, to 349 cases from 184, about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. The increase occurred even though there have been fewer troops stationed in the United States in the last six years and the American homicide rate has been, on average, lower.
The Pentagon was given The Times’s roster of homicides. It declined to comment because, a spokesman, Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, said, the Department of Defense could not duplicate the newspaper’s research. Further, Colonel Melnyk questioned the validity of comparing prewar and wartime numbers based on news media reports, saying that the current increase might be explained by “an increase in awareness of military service by reporters since 9/11.” He also questioned the value of “lumping together different crimes such as involuntary manslaughter with first-degree homicide.”
Given that many veterans rebound successfully from their war experiences and some flourish as a result of them, veterans groups have long deplored the attention paid to the minority of soldiers who fail to readjust to civilian life.
After World War I, the American Legion passed a resolution asking the press “to subordinate whatever slight news value there may be in playing up the ex-service member angle in stories of crime or offense against the peace.” An article in the Veterans of Foreign Wars magazine in 2006 referred with disdain to the pervasive “wacko-vet myth,” which, veterans say, makes it difficult for them to find jobs.
Clearly, committing homicide is an extreme manifestation of dysfunction for returning veterans, many of whom struggle in quieter ways, with crumbling marriages, mounting debt, deepening alcohol dependence or more-minor tangles with the law.
But these killings provide a kind of echo sounding for the profound depths to which some veterans have fallen, whether at the bottom of a downward spiral or in a sudden burst of violence.
Thirteen of these veterans took their own lives after the killings, and two more were fatally shot by the police. Several more attempted suicide or expressed a death wish, like Joshua Pol, a former soldier convicted of vehicular homicide, who told a judge in Montana in 2006, “To be honest with you, I really wish I had died in Iraq.”
In some of the cases involving veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that the suspect went to war bears no apparent relationship to the crime committed or to the prosecution and punishment. But in many of the cases, the deployment of the service member invariably becomes a factor of some sort as the legal system, families and communities grapple to make sense of the crimes.
This is especially stark where a previously upstanding young man — there is one woman among the 121 — appears to have committed a random act of violence. And The Times’s analysis showed that the overwhelming majority of these young men, unlike most civilian homicide offenders, had no criminal history.
“When they’ve been in combat, you have to suspect immediately that combat has had some effect, especially with people who haven’t shown these tendencies in the past,” said Robert Jay Lifton, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School/Cambridge Health Alliance who used to run “rap groups” for Vietnam veterans and fought to earn recognition for what became known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“Everything is multicausational, of course,” Dr. Lifton continued. “But combat, especially in a counterinsurgency war, is such a powerful experience that to discount it would be artificial.”
Few of these 121 war veterans received more than a cursory mental health screening at the end of their deployments, according to interviews with the veterans, lawyers, relatives and prosecutors. Many displayed symptoms of combat trauma after their return, those interviews show, but they were not evaluated for or received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder until after they were arrested for homicides.
What is clear is that experiences on the streets of Baghdad and Falluja shadowed these men back to places like Longview, Tex., and Edwardsville, Ill.
“He came back different” is the shared refrain of the defendants’ family members, who mention irritability, detachment, volatility, sleeplessness, excessive drinking or drug use, and keeping a gun at hand.
Big applause to the NYT today, at long last.
While the information is difficult to look at head-on and discuss, as they expertly explain below, we need to look at all of the realities our military families are facing as they work towards putting their lives back together again following combat. We shouldn't expect them to have to deal with these issues on their own.
My ePluribus Media colleagues and I have been tracking such reported cases in the PTSD Timeline since 2005 with no budget, a few hands, many good hearts, and little time to do the work properly. But, at least we tried (...and ended up scooping both the mighty NYT and CBS News by nearly 2 1/2 years, tracking a story that was staring them in the face had they only wanted to see).
As CBS News finally stepped in late last year to dig deeper into the issue of returning veteran suicide, it's good to see the New York Times is also now using some of its massive resources to help our society better understand where we are on this issue; hopefully the data -- as difficult and unwelcome as it is -- will lead us to where we need to go with our thinking and our actions.
The troubles and exploits of the returning war veteran represent a searing slice of reality. They have served as a recurring artistic theme throughout history — from Homer’s “Odyssey” to the World War I novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” from the post-Vietnam-era movie “The Deer Hunter” to last fall’s film “In the Valley of Elah.”
At the heart of these tales lie warriors plagued by the kind of psychic wounds that have always afflicted some fraction of combat veterans. In an online course for health professionals, Capt. William P. Nash, the combat/operational stress control coordinator for the Marines, reaches back to Sophocles’ account of Ajax, who slipped into a depression after the Trojan War, slaughtered a flock of sheep in a crazed state and then fell on his own sword.
The nature of the counterinsurgency war in Iraq, where there is no traditional front line, has amplified the stresses of combat, and multiple tours of duty — a third of the troops involved in Iraq and Afghanistan have deployed more than once — ratchet up those stresses.
In earlier eras, various labels attached to the psychological injuries of war: soldier’s heart, shell shock, Vietnam disorder. Today the focus is on PTSD, but military health care officials are seeing a spectrum of psychological issues, with an estimated half of the returning National Guard members, 38 percent of soldiers and 31 percent of marines reporting mental health problems, according to a Pentagon task force.
Decades of studies on the problems of Vietnam veterans have established links between combat trauma and higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, gun ownership, child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse — and criminality. On a less scientific level, such links have long been known.
“The connection between war and crime is unfortunately very ancient,” said Dr. Shay, the V.A. psychiatrist and author. “The first thing that Odysseus did after he left Troy was to launch a pirate raid on Ismarus. Ending up in trouble with the law has always been a final common pathway for some portion of psychologically injured veterans.”
The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, considered the most thorough analysis of this population, found that 15 percent of the male veterans still suffered from full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder more than a decade after the war ended. Half of the veterans with active PTSD had been arrested or in jail at least once, and 34.2 percent more than once. Some 11.5 percent of them had been convicted of felonies, and veterans are more likely to have committed violent crimes than nonveterans, according to government studies. In the mid-1980s, with so many Vietnam veterans behind bars that Vietnam Veterans of America created chapters in prisons, veterans made up a fifth of the nation’s inmate population.
As Iraq and Afghanistan veterans get enmeshed in the criminal justice system, former advocates for Vietnam veterans are disheartened by what they see as history repeating itself.
“These guys today, I recognize the hole in their souls,” said Hector Villarreal, a criminal defense lawyer in Mission, Tex., who briefly represented a three-time Iraq combat veteran charged with manslaughter.
Brockton D. Hunter, a criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis, told colleagues in a recent lecture at the Minnesota State Bar Association that society should try harder to prevent veterans from self-destructing.
“To truly support our troops, we need to apply our lessons from history and newfound knowledge about PTSD to help the most troubled of our returning veterans,” Mr. Hunter said. “To deny the frequent connection between combat trauma and subsequent criminal behavior is to deny one of the direct societal costs of war and to discard another generation of troubled heroes.” ...
Unlike during the Vietnam War, the current military has made a concerted effort, through screenings and research, to gauge the mental health needs of returning veterans. But gauging and addressing needs are different, and a Pentagon task force last year described the military mental health system as overburdened, “woefully” understaffed, inadequately financed and undermined by the stigma attached to PTSD.
Although early treatment might help veterans retain their relationships and avoid developing related problems like depression, alcoholism and criminal behavior, many do not seek or get such help. And this group of homicide defendants seems to be a prime example.
Like Mr. Strasburg, many of these veterans learned that they had post-traumatic stress disorder only after their arrests. And their mental health issues often went unevaluated even after the killings if they were pleading not guilty, if they did not have aggressive lawyers and relatives — or if they killed themselves first.
Of the 13 combat veterans in The Times database who committed murder-suicides, only two, as best as it can be determined, had psychological problems diagnosed by the military health care system after returning from war.
“The real tragedy in these veterans’ case is that, where PTSD is a factor, it is highly treatable,” said Lawrence W. Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “And when people are exposed to serious trauma and don’t get it treated, it is a serious risk factor for violence.”
At various times, the question of whether the military shares some blame for these killings gets posed. This occurs especially where the military knew beforehand of a combat veteran’s psychological troubles, marital problems or history of substance abuse.
In some cases, the military sent service members with pre-existing problems — known histories of mental illness, drug abuse or domestic abuse — into combat only to find those problems exacerbated by the stresses of war. In other cases, they quickly discharged returning veterans with psychological or substance abuse problems, after which they committed homicides.
The Times piece includes a number of incidents they've found. Be sure to read it in full before it's archived.
Also well worth a reading and listen, a companion audio interview with the most wonderful Dr. Jonathan Shay, noted author and VA counselor whom I had the great honor and pleasure of meeting and dining with last month in Washington, D.C.