I’m an Iraq War veteran and an advocate for Veterans for Common Sense. My friends and family are mostly veterans or part of military families. This past decade has been tough for the military following 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and military actions throughout the world. The pressure of multiple combat deployments on the military has been tremendous. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are among the foremost issues affecting our troops today. They also remain controversial. The shooting of a Park Ranger by Iraq vet Colton Barnes and the murders in Afghanistan allegedly committed by SSG Robert Bales have brought the issue into focus.
Many argue PTSD/TBI are being wrongly blamed by the media and misperceived in the public as the cause of these violent acts. They are correct. Veterans, even those who don’t have PTSD/TBI, carry the stigma that they’re ‘crazy vets’. This is a justified fear. Not every vet has PTSD/TBI, though nearly a quarter do. Not every veteran who has PTSD/TBI will tend toward violent behavior. The overwhelming majority will not. There are studies that show the connection between PTSD/TBI and violence is tenuous. Additionally, the mostly-cognitive nature of PTSD/TBI makes them impossible to diagnose with 100% accuracy.
Another school of thought, while in agreement about the misperception of the connection of PTSD/TBI with violence, holds that denying any connection between the experience of combat and negative follow-on consequences such as violence, suicide, or inability to adjust to civil society is dishonest and unfair. PTSD/TBI is not the only negative effect of time at war. It may be that veterans like Barnes and Bales didn’t suffer from PTSD/TBI at all. But to deny that their time spent at war had any effect on their actions seems to fly in the face of common sense. The opposite view has the effect of turning people like Barnes and Bales into killers whose time in combat didn’t affect their actions at all. It may also serve to assuage the responsibility our leaders have to ensure our military isn’t being overburdened. If incidents can simply be chalked up to individual faults, then what’s to stop protracted and multiple combat tours from becoming the rule and not an exception.
Regardless of view, America must address the heavy burden long, gritty combat tours have on our volunteer military. If you ask a trooper they’ll tell you they’re ‘good to go’ and military medicine can sometimes be compared to team doctors sending players back on the field after multiple concussions. This consideration should (and used to be) included in planning for conflicts that turn into long slogs. The downside of an all-volunteer military is that they volunteer to serve no matter what. This creates a duty for our political leaders to ensure our troops are being protected from the lifelong effects of years at war. America has a duty to protect its troops as much as they’re protecting us. When we send them off to war, it had better be worth it.