Over the last few years, the United States has averaged almost 15,000 murders per year. Our murder rate continues to be higher than virtually every other industrialized nation. These acts have become a mere mention in the nightly news, sandwiched in between stories of the day's events. So why does it attract so much attention when someone in the military pulls the trigger?
For decades -- but specifically in the aftermath of Vietnam War -- the portrayal of combat veterans in the media and in Hollywood has often included those who are "broken," "crazy," "psychotic" or otherwise "dangerous." This storyline is harmful and can keep veterans from transitioning successfully.
With the recent Fort Hood shooting, as well as the one at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., last year, there was no reason to immediately assume the shooters had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and if they did, whether it had anything to do with their military service. In fact, 8 percent of our civilian population will suffer from PTSD during their lifetime, from car crashes, sexual trauma, natural disasters or other significant incidents.
Eight percent of our national population of 313 million comes out to 25 million people. According to the Rand Corporation, 20 percent of the 2.5 million of our troops who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD or major depression. This equals 500,000 potential veterans with PTSD or depression. Certainly a significant number (though dwarfed by the number of our civilian population with PTSD), it highlights the fact that PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) are a fact of life for many in our society. Yet for some reason this stereotype of a violent, Rambo-like, crazed veteran is perpetuated every time an isolated situation like this pops up.
We as a nation have developed an ill-informed shorthand that assumes anyone in uniform who commits a violent act is struggling with PTSD or combat-related issues. We've created the image of a Frankenstein, who has returned home from war with a ticking time-bomb in his head. As most veterans know -- even anecdotally -- those suffering from post-traumatic stress are more likely to harm themselves than others.
I deployed to Iraq in 2006, and was shot in the face while on a combat patrol. Despite having PTSD and a TBI, I have worked very hard to adjust to my "new normal" and reintegrate back into society. That includes going to mental-health counseling through the Give an Hour program, staying physically fit (because that is important to a healthy mind), and engaging in peer mentoring through the Wounded Warrior Project and other groups.
All of these things make me not only a veteran, but a survivor -- much like anyone else who has experienced a traumatic experience. And as survivors, we struggle, we grow, and we are forever changed.
In my particular case, I never want to go to another pistol range ever again, or pull the trigger of any weapon. But that is just me. I also enjoy speaking openly about PTSD and TBI to help educate the general public about my experiences in an effort to dispel some of the prevalent myths regarding both. Again, that is just me, and each survivor has his or her own coping measures, triggers, strengths and weaknesses.
Millions of service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to serve our country in the past 11 years. We are not monsters. We are not time bombs. And we are not victims. We are soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Some of us are survivors. Others of us have just begun our stories in the military. We all come from different families, towns and experiences that have shaped who we are. Our military experience is just one of those chapters.
If we want to help veterans transition successfully -- to become as productive in civilian life as they were overseas -- then we need to change how we talk about mental injuries sustained in combat. This includes not just conversations around the dinner table, but also how these topics are reported. If reporters are going to cover PTSD and returning veterans, then they have a responsibility to learn and understand the reality of post-traumatic stress. They can't use sensational headlines because it's easier or draws in more readers. Doing so is a not only a disservice to the individuals involved, it's also a disservice to the nation's military overall.
I have PTSD and a TBI, am a leader in my community, and work with the Chamber of Commerce's Hiring Our Heroes initiative to help corporations with their veteran-hiring initiatives. When you think of a veteran with PTSD, why don't you think about me or the millions of others who have deployed and continue leading safe, productive lives?
For more information on mental health support for veterans, visit mentalhealth.va.gov.