The media in our country is the ultimate double-edged sword. Journalists do a remarkable job of uncovering secrets, warning the public and exposing the corrupt all while telling us what's on TV and how the stock market did. Here at the National Veterans Foundation, we count on you to focus on the message of suicide prevention and to help us deal with the homelessness all around us.
At the same, media can ruin a life, destroy a business or help create fear or even hate.
Last time I checked, we have about 15,000 murders in America each year. I have never seen a headline after one that touts:
Civilian Who Never Served in the Military Accused of Killing!
But, when the opposite is true, you're sure to see a headline like:
Iraq Vet on Killing Spree.
Don't overhear me -- when the accused goes to trial, certainly it is appropriate to include his training with weapons and his combat history. But that appropriate time is at the trial and not the first hour after the arrest.
Since the Vietnam War and efforts by a group of us to bring about a better understanding of PTSD and other illnesses, courts have occasionally considered combat trauma in determining guilt. At the same time, they, now more than ever, consider PTSD in sentencing. Gone are the days when prosecutors can argue "he is a trained killer... that's all he knows because our government trained him. He is an animal who must be caged for life or put down."
When an American goes in harm's way to fight for his country, his or her training is critical. We have more than 20 million veterans in our country and, yes, there have been a handful of high profile mass killings when the accused has served in the military.
But, that should not deprive them of a fair trial, due process and consideration of their mental state at the time.
Ironically, the opposite is true when it's time to be kind and complimentary. I recently met a remarkable woman -- Jane Austin, President of Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) for Los Angeles. Her son is on active duty in Germany and her father served in World War II. Veterans among the 80,000 members of SAG-AFTRA have no better friend than Jane and her team headed by actor/former Army MP Kevin Dobson, heading up those guilds' veterans committee.
The great writer/producer Garry Marshall had just died when Jane and I met. His lengthy obituaries detailed all of his artistic creations, his family life and even his many awards.
But, there was no mention of the Korean War -- that was Garry's war when he served in the uniform of his country.
The late Charles Durning had many great roles (The Sting, Tootsie, Dog Day Afternoon are just a few) but he is known as always saying the one that really mattered was on Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion of World War II. He earned three Purple Hearts, was captured, escaped and awarded the Silver Star.
So, here is a suggestion to editors and journalists in print and TV everywhere. When you are honoring anyone who has been in harm's way serving their country, share it with the public. When, on those very few occasions, a veteran goes haywire, can we wait until trial when the lawyers and the doctors can sort out what happened and why before linking the crime to time in combat? Thanks.