The recent murders of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and friend Chad Littlefield by Marine veteran Eddie Ray Routh have re-focused press stories about PTSD. One recurrent question is about the wisdom of treating Eddie Ray Routh’s PTSD by taking him to a gun range, as Kyle and Littlefield had done. It may be true that taking a vet with PTSD to a shooting range might trigger some anxiety, but to suggest that it would then cause a person to kill two innocents is patently ludicrous. Eddie Ray Routh committed two murders because he chose a path of evil, not because he was compelled by some sort of flashback triggered by the sound of gunfire.
In nearly five years of counseling soldiers with PTSD I’ve learned a great many things. Significant among them is that people with PTSD are far less likely than almost any other group to become violent. The reality is they close in, become reclusive. If alcohol is in the veteran’s self-medication plan that may lead to a measure of violence, but it’s the alcohol that causes the loss of self-control, not PTSD.
Too often, news outlets portray bad behavior by vets as somehow service-connected; there is no scientific evidence to support such a link. Stars and Stripes writer Leo Shane III recently addressed the inaccuracy of that stereotype ... highlighting that crazy assumptions about veterans after shootings are more stereotype than reality.
There is no doubt that military service changes a person, usually for the better. Combat also changes a person and too often we try to blame a person’s bad behavior on exposure to combat. Not all military veterans come from the same background, have the same education, morals or coping skills. No statement about veterans can apply to all veterans, except that they have served their country.
Likewise, no single treatment can help those with PTSD to cope. I teach vets to write about their symptoms, which I know to be a useful tool for some. Other treatments include exposure therapy, talk therapy, medication, hypnosis and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Each of these approaches can provide help in the management of PTSD symptoms, but none provides a cure. Each of us is different; we respond differently to different treatments. Doctors don’t understand how to treat it; they’ve only just recently given it a name. But it is imperative that we try, in each case, to discover which tools help our veterans to cope.
PTSD is real. PTSD is a combat wound. We can do a better job of diagnosing it and treating it, but no good can come from repeatedly painting its victims as damaged, out of control people. They carry the wounds of war that military veterans have carried since the beginning of war fighting. For thousands of years the world has refused to name it, refused to help those afflicted by it. Today we do acknowledge it, yet we cannot diagnose it with the necessary precision to connect a vet with the treatment most likely to provide relief. One positive step might be to focus the discussion on helping veterans instead of trying to scare everyone else.