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.
But still, there is sometimes a wariness to the faces of service members and veterans I know. They don’t want their own occasional jumpiness or nightmares to trip them up; they see others who have broken down and worry that they will too. And so they work hard to guard their own toughness. Some train for ironman triathlons as soon as they get home; some sublimate their sense of social disconnect by retreating from family or friends and immersing themselves in work; some women I know try to "outbro the bros."
At the same time, most are struggling with moral doubts about some of the things they did and saw in battle, which mix with their pride and sense of being part of a noble cause. It takes time for them to sort out the messy moral terrain of war -- whether they could have done something different to avoid the accidental turret gun discharge that blew off the face of another service member; whether they were right to place so much trust in COIN, to convince other soldiers to put themselves at risk in building strong relations with a local family, only to have that family turn on them. It is impossible not to feel some guilt, some self-doubt, some anger. These are the deep injuries of war and too many soldiers bury them.
They are on the guard for themselves, but also against others. They don’t want to feed the stereotype about warriors who come home broken. And they fear that talking about their moral injuries openly with civilians will lead to the demonization of war and its actors. And so they walk a careful line. It is not uncommon for a service member to be diligent about helping his or her buddies get treatment, staying alert to signs of risky and suicidal behavior, or promoting Pentagon and VA campaigns to destigmatize mental health treatment for service members and their families, even as he or she stays stoic and tough.
That brings us back to the Fort Hood tragedy. The biggest army base in the United States, Fort Hood is the size of a small city. But it is not a city many of us can visit. Soldiers wind up there after their tours of duty to begin the difficult work of reintegration into society. But many of them start that work without regular contact with civilians. Whatever the benefits of troop camaraderie for making peace with war, and there are many, there are also costs.