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Marcus Landsberg Headshot

Veterans and PTSD

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PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Actions are inextricably linked.

We need to de-link them.

PTSD affects our veterans two ways. We all know the main way. Many soldiers who come back from a war zone often feel they cannot sleep more than arm's length from their weapon. Cold sweats. Night terrors. Loud noises inspire reactions finely tuned but misplaced. Often they have trouble being indoors or in enclosed places. Some need direct access to the exit door at all times.

For civilians whose closest contact with war is Call of Duty, PTSD for soldiers in wartime is a foregone conclusion. No bootcamp, no video, no training can prepare someone for watching their friends blown up or blowing up someone else. As weapons become more destructive and more capable, the results of those weapons become more terrible. Witnessing that destruction becomes more affecting. Now as a society we ask people to participate in that destruction without being able to to prepare them for it, we don't expect them to come back okay.

But that doesn't mean that they always come back screwed up, and that's why we have a problem as a society.

The second way, the more insidious way, PTSD affects our soldiers is the perception of PTSD in our soldiers.

Our nation has a long history of wrestling with how we treat our veterans. Obviously there was a trouble period where the veterans of the Vietnam War were abandoned. I think subsequent to that we realized it was okay to "object to the war but support the soldiers" and that became the new philosophy. Now I'm worried that's become only a catchphrase.

I have the greatest job in the world (for me). It's a job that wouldn't even exist if we weren't a nation of laws and rules. My job is to make sure that people who are wrongly accused of crimes don't suffer the penalty of punishment and people who are rightly accused of crimes suffer only the proper punishment as required by law. Part of my job has allowed me to represent any number of members of our nation's military who have been accused of minor crimes, and some who have been accused of much greater crimes.

When I have a military client I'm always shocked that the de facto impression of many in our community is "they must have PTSD." I had a client get into a fistfight with a gang member. No one brought up the oath to uphold the Constitution or our nation and its laws. No, the prosecution's one word answer was, "PTSD." The reason my client won the fight is because of his military training, but that wasn't why the fight started. The fight started because a Haole was walking down the wrong corner. If my client hadn't had his military training, he'd still be in the hospital right now. But it wasn't just the prosecution, it's the default knee-jerk reaction, and that's wrong.

When I was in law school, we had an African-American classmate who all but introduced himself by saying, "I got in because I had good grades and good scores, not because of my race." It's the negative side of affirmative action: Every minority of success only achieved it because of the color of their skin and the step up they must've received. My fear is we are now in the same place with PTSD and the military.

On the other side, I've had the pleasure of meeting the most well-meaning, well-behaved people I've ever met simply because they operated a car a little to fast, or a little intoxicated, or in the wrong place at the wrong time when the wrong cop gave the wrong violation. These are by far the majority. The well-mannered, soft-spoken, accepting of their punishment, just wanting to make sure the punishment is not worse than it needs to be. Hoping the punishment doesn't end their career. Having seen horrors, and being all the stronger for it.

This Veterans Day, let's find a way to go back to when our veterans were assumed to have left the military having the best training in the world, the greatest discipline that can be taught, and life experiences that can't be bought. Let's operate under the assumption that these are people who have something to teach us about other cultures and basic operations. And when we find ourselves saying, "uh-oh, he must be dangerous, he's ex-military," we catch ourselves and realize that if the veteran is dangerous, he is dangerous for us, not against us. That any horrors he has seen is so we don't have to, that any tribulation his has gone through has steeled him for society, not aligned him against us.

See more of Marcus' writing about the law at Hawaii Legal Defense Blog.