The Trenches at Home: Veterans, Crime, and PTSD Through History (Part 2)
Audie Murphy, the most decorated veteran of World War II earned “every military honor” possible. He became the face of military heroism when he returned home. Yet, his bravest act may have been when he went public with his own struggles with combat stress. He urged President Nixon to devote money and attention to dealing with the combat stress of the Vietnam generation. If only they had.
Experts fear that after effects of war is a growing problem, not a lessening one. Vietnam veterans averaged about one 12-month tour during their service. Post 9/11 veterans often see as many as four to six tours of duty. Many believe that about half of the 2.6 million people who have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from some mental injury. Often veterans try to get through the trauma on their own, fearing the label or stigma that comes from a PTSD diagnosis.
There is a rising understanding that untreated PTSD may contribute to anti-social behavior that includes crime. This is nothing new. Post-Revolutionary writings mention “crime waves” after the war was over. No one recorded whether the spike was due to veterans, but a similar surge in crime can be seen after other wars. Many of the famous Wild West outlaws including Jesse James, the Younger brothers, the Cole brothers and the notorious Quantrill’s Raiders were Confederate soldiers who didn’t see a place for themselves in the (Re)United States of America.
After World War II, the outlaw biker gangs that took to the streets shocking Mr. & Mrs. John Q. Public were often comprised of disaffected veterans who felt they didn’t have much of a life waiting for them “back home.” One group formed by war immigrants took the name of a lethal squadron in the war. ”Hell’s Angels” became the stuff of legend, and controversy.
More common than gangs of ex-military, however, are the individuals who succumb to drug use, alcoholism, and criminal behavior. Before the most recent set of wars, a 2004 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics said that about 20 percent of veterans in state prison and 26 percent of veterans in federal prison had seen combat. Veterans were more likely to be in jail for violent crimes including murder and sexual assault.
In 2007, alone, 1.2 million veterans were arrested. Nine percent of those in prison or jail were veterans, not including those on probation or in community detention. Whether you blame it on the current administration or see it as part of a longer-term problem, concern about jailing our veterans is rising. Yet, untreated combat stress can be deadly.
Hunter told of a survivor of a famous battle in Vietnam who was arrested dozens of times after he returned from war. He sought help, but never found what he needed and his behavior became increasingly volatile. His wife stayed by his side to care for him. Eventually, in the process of taking his own life, he also took hers. There’s no guarantee that had he gotten the comprehensive services and mentor support of a veterans treatment court after his first DUI that things would have worked out differently, but they couldn’t have gone much worse.
In the past, veterans in the criminal system have been drugged, lobotomized, beaten and imprisoned without treating the combat stress that may have thrown they into the system in the first place. Veterans who need help are all too often abandoned, instead. No single solution can address the myriad crimes or causes that funnel a veteran into the labyrinth of our criminal court system that is designed to put them away rather than help them.
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