It's the Gun, Not the Shooter

The Real Lessons From Fort Hood

Soldiers in Afghanistan.
U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan, 2010 (U.S. Army / Flickr)

The recent shooting at Fort Hood, which echoed a rampage on the same base in 2009 that left 13 dead, should be seen as a warning that guns and mental illness do not mix. It should not be seen as a sign that returning service members, with or without posttraumatic stress, are ticking time bombs that pose grave risks to society. Despite the military’s aggressive campaign this decade to destigmatize mental health issues, service members still face high barriers, both cultural and personal, to coming forward and seeking help. It would only add to the tragedy in Fort Hood if this rampage raises those hurdles even higher.

Recent figures from an impressive Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll indicate that only 20 percent of the 2.6 million service members who have served in this century’s wars suffer from some form of posttraumatic stress and major depression. The vast majority of those who serve come home psychologically healthy and resilient, with a work ethic that is a clear asset in many academic and job environments. In war, they learned astute leadership, split-second assessment- and decision-making, endurance, selfless service, and how to tap into deep reserves of energy. After the battle, those skills allow them to be high functioners, individuals of remarkable virtue and wisdom who can take on more than a full plate and excel at what they do.

In courses I have taught on ethics and war, I am often impressed by veterans who are willing to share their experiences. These men and women, who are largely in their 20s, have been in the thick of complicated counterinsurgency and intelligence gathering operations, piloting and reconnaissance missions in insurgent villages, and interrogation and detention operations -- all situations in which rage could get the better of calm. The demands that have been placed on them are staggering and their achievements immense.

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