PTSD Contributes to Violence. Pretending It Doesn’t Is No Way to Support the Troops.

Health and medicine explained.
April 17 2014 4:04 PM

War Is Hell, and the Hell Rubs Off

PTSD contributes to violence. Pretending it doesn’t is no way to support the troops.

Fort Hood Memorial Service
A soldier gets emotional during President Obama's remarks at a memorial service at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, on April 9, 2014. Earlier this month Army Spc. Ivan A. Lopez killed three and injured 16 others at Fort Hood before taking his own life.

Photo by Julia Robinson/Reuters

In September 2007, at the height of the Iraq surge, I spent two weeks with the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry in Dora, one of the deadliest neighborhoods in Baghdad. By that point in the war, I had embedded with a dozen-odd infantry units, and 2-12, the “Lethal Warriors” from Fort Carson in Colorado, was one of the best I’d seen. Cocky, aggressive, and competent in all the right ways, they exuded an indifference toward death that was hard not to admire. The dangers they lived with for months are impossible to describe with any justice, but one image stays with me, the thing I saw the first time I walked into 2-12’s command post. On the wall in front of me were 16 framed photographs, one for each soldier killed in-country.

At the end of their 15-month tour in Iraq, the Lethal Warriors returned to Fort Carson with an impressive battlefield record, having cleared one of the worst parts of Baghdad, in some cases digging up IEDs with little more than screwdrivers and tire irons. Unfortunately, the Lethal Warriors achieved a kind of notoriety that was less for their battlefield exploits than for the battalion’s connection to a string of murders. In December 2007 two soldiers from the unit, Robert James and Kevin Shields, were killed, and three fellow soldiers were charged with murder. The killings were part of a larger pattern of violence extending back to 2005, including 11 murders, in what was the largest killing spree involving a single army base in modern U.S. history.

The increased violence around Fort Carson began at the start of the Iraq war. A 126-page Army report known as an “Epidemiological Consultation” released in 2009 found that the murder rate around the Army’s third-largest post had doubled and that the number of rape arrests had tripled. As David Philipps wrote in Lethal Warriors, his 2010 book about the crime spree, “In the year after the battalion returned from Iraq, the per-capita murder rate for this small group of soldiers was a hundred times greater than the national average.” Tellingly, 2-12’s post-traumatic stress disorder rate was more than three times that of an equivalent unit that had served in a less violent part of Iraq. The EPICON summarized all this in classic bureaucratic language, noting dully that there was “a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes.”

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Put another way, war has a way of bringing out the dark side in people.

The idea that PTSD is unrelated to violence back home is one of the central pillars of today’s rigid “support the troops” campaign. After every mass shooting event involving a veteran, Veterans Affairs psychiatrists and veterans advocates deliver the same stern warning: Mentioning PTSD in conjunction with these shootings is not only inaccurate, it hurts veterans. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s press release earlier this month after the second Fort Hood shooting is representative: “In moments like this, there is a tendency by some to paint a broad brush across the entire veterans community and it’s important to guard against this mistake. We encourage everyone—especially those in the media and political positions—to be thoughtful and responsible in their reactions and to remember that correlation does not imply causation.”

We are insistently told that it is irresponsible to even consider what deeper, more complex forces might be at work in these military base shootings. Veterans are heroes, murderers are deranged individuals; there is no connection between war service and homicide at home, full stop.

While it is inaccurate to say that PTSD causes violence, the unfortunate truth is that there is a link between PTSD and postwar homicide, and it’s far more than just a passing correlation. Serving in a war zone exposes people to very serious moral challenges, and the experience can serve as a catalyst, making some people less stable and more violent than they might have been otherwise. War is hell, and the hell rubs off.

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