Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Death on the Home Front

The NYTimes this weekend had a long report on soldiers who have returned to the United States and committed a killing:

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 thing about this is that the DoD isn't inclined to take ownership of the killings, especially since a good chunk of them were committed after the soldiers become veterans and therefore beyond the DoD's jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the DoD's "no comment" stance on this issue is worse than if they addressed it head on.

The bad news is that when we train people to kill people sometimes it's really hard to turn that switch off, especially given the extreme and prolonged stress that these soldiers undergo in combat situations. We can't say that in every instance these killings can be chalked up to PTSD, but it's hard to ignore that combat stress has lasting effects. What I found saddest and most disturbing was that in a third of the circumstances, the victim was a family member. These wives, children, or close relatives are happy to see their soldiers return home, but they aren't the same. In many cases, these former soldiers also took their own lives.

It's becoming a more common story as troops return from the combat arena. The thing is, PTSD is treatable, and we should be pushing to make sure these kinds of incidents don't happen because the veteran gets treatment before he or she causes destruction. As the death toll is starting to subside in Iraq, it's important that we monitor it here as well.

Cross-posted on campusprogress.org/blog.

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