News broke this past Wednesday afternoon of yet another tragic mass shooting at Fort Hood, the second in the base in just five years. While TransparentPolicy‘s primary focus is the United States’ response to foreign terrorist threats, this is an issue that warrants our attention, largely in part to the widespread implications the news coverage of these events will have on the general public’s perception of service members and military veterans, which will ultimately affect the long-term well being of those who have served our country in the post-9/11 military.
Almost immediately after news of the most recent Fort Hood shooting broke, news outlets began to focus their coverage on the mental health of the suspect, who had served a four-month deployment in Iraq in 2008. I don’t dispute that there is, without question, a high prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health issues amongst service members and veterans. In fact, RAND’s often-referenced Invisible Wounds of War study estimates that about one in five Iraq veterans returned home from deployments with symptoms of PTSD.
This mental health crisis is slowly but surely garnering attention and being addressed to the best of our abilities. Since 2010, the VA has recognized PTSD as a service-connected disability, meaning PTSD will be considered when calculating a veteran’s disability rating. And organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America lobby for policy initiatives that will benefit veterans, in addition to directing veterans to resources and services that can help address symptoms of PTSD and mental illness. This new focus on an old but often unrecognized problem is good news indeed.
Unfortunately, however, a side-effect of this public focus on the mental health of soldiers, particularly in the wake of high-profile cases like the Fort Hood shootings and last September’s Washington Navy Yard shooting, has been to build a negative public image of military personnel. This negative–and false–image ultimately hinders veterans as they transition from their respective services into civilian life. In comparison to the general public, veterans face disproportionate rates of joblessness and homelessness, amongst other issues. With regards to unemployment in particular, these numbers are without a doubt dramatically exacerbated by civilians’ misperceptions about the military, PTSD, and mental illness generally.
Despite the United States’ presence in Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11th, the reality is that most Americans have little, if any, personal experience or connection with the military. In an era where the draft is largely a distant memory for most, a large percentage of Americans do not have close relationships with military personnel, particularly those who have served since 9/11- the closest they come to the military is news reports or seeing a uniformed soldier in the airport traveling to or from leave.
The problem arises when public perception is largely shaped by news reports, many focusing on violent outbursts and drawing hasty conclusions about the role the perpetrator’s service and/or deployment played in their deteriorated mental condition that led them to commit these tragic attacks. It shapes misconceptions about veterans, and leads the average civilian to believe that all post-9/11 veterans are mentally unstable. Not only does this lead to uncomfortable conversations, often ignorant or based on misconceptions, it can lead to discrimination in the hiring process and sometimes even after workers are hired. People, genuinely concerned about workplace violence or even simply creating a harmonious environment, choose to bypass veterans due to concern about their mental stability.
As a post-9/11 veteran myself, this is an situation I find highly unsettling. I am, without question, proud of the time I spent serving my country. But even seven years after my service, I often avoid speaking about it with people I do not know well or who are not veterans themselves, because I simply do not want to deal with the inevitable questions that try, and generally fail, to politely inquire about my mental health.
There is a need to strike a balance: ensuring that civilians understand the issues veterans face without leading them to false assumptions and generalizations about all veterans. The transition from military to civilian life is difficult enough without the added hurdles of false, negative assumptions about our experiences in the military. If news coverage of this sort continues, we run the risk of once again creating the “Rambo” narrative that undoubtedly contributed to the stigma attached to service during that the Vietnam era.
Our veterans deserve better than this. And we can do better. A good place to start is to call out reporters and media outlets that, in their rush to secure juicy stories, propagate misinformation about veterans, such as Fox News and NBC.
Paul Taylor, Senior Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research