Yesterday I spent a good part of my afternoon watching the coverage of the assassination attempt of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Obviously a ridiculously awful event that as it gets sorted out of the next few weeks I am sure will get even worse. (Hopefully the fact that she’s Jewish didn’t factor into her being a target. Although the fact that the kid was a fan of Mein Kampf and Hitler doesn’t bode well.) This kid has serious problems and as time goes on the missed warning signs are going to become even more blatant with hindsight. However, I want to talk about something that happened at the beginning of the event right as media and individuals were trying to deal with the events that had just occurred. One of Rep. Giffords friends was on the phone with CNN and stated that she heard the shooter was “an Afghan Veteran.” The commentator corrected here saying, “you mean, a Afghanistan War Veteran?” To which she replied “Yes,” and it was left at that. The shooter was a veteran.
Of course that was speculation and hearsay and it has come forward that the shooter is not a veteran or even someone with military training. He’s someone who looks to have mental problems and is probably not affiliated with either party. My problem is that the speculation that this person was a veteran of Afghanistan (or Iraq) was seen as totally plausible. CNN and the interviewee did not mind blatantly throwing veterans under the bus by inferring that only a deranged veteran would do something like this.
The problem as I see it is that we have this meme that veterans are crazy, unstable people. We venerate them out of one side of our mouth and out of the other we infer that they are not mentally stable and are prone to flipping out and going crazy. This is something that I have been personally affected by and it is one of the reas0ns why when I meet people for the first time I don’t tell them I am a veteran. People automatically assume that you are a bit off if you are a veteran. It’s an unfair assumption and one that does further damage by perpetuating the stigma that is attached to PTSD. This stigma only means that those with it are less likely to seek out help, increasing the likelihood that they are going to have to struggle through life by themselves without seeking help. This in part explains why suicide is so high among veterans.
This idea of veterans being highly unstable is further perpetrated by Hollywood and their portrayal of veterans, which in many situations is unfavorable. Movies like Rambo, Brothers, The Hurt Locker, and others show veterans that are detached, unprofessional, and on the verge of going completely insane at any time, for any reason. Also to blame is the lack of care that veterans of the Vietnam War were given, and the fact that many veterans from that war are still struggling to come to grips with what has happened to them. It is over 30 years since that war has ended and many of those veterans have been struggling with these issues on their own without the help of medical professionals, family, or friends because of the stigma that is attached to PTSD.
People tend to think that people with PTSD are unsettled and incapable of taking care of themselves. It’s like we sit around in a pile of our own feces throwing it at people all day long. The reality of PTSD is that the things that most people take for granted we struggle with e.g. sleep. Day in, day out certain parts of life that most people have no trouble with we have to work a little harder (and sometimes a lot harder) at. However, everyday we get up go to our jobs or school and work just as well–and many times better–than others. We take care of and look out for our loved ones more than others because we understand the fragility of life and how fortunate we are to still be around. For every one veteran that has a problem and gets in trouble there are thousands who–even though they have problems–are working through them and still are contributing to society at the highest levels. It’s unfortunate that we think that the one is normal and to be expected whilst the thousands are thought to be rare. Maybe that is why while gay jokes and racial jokes are not acceptable in many arenas–like workplaces–it still is completely acceptable to make these kind of statements about veterans (and don’t think that this is a random statement not based in fact. This is a statement I make knowing that it is true because of the experiences I and others I know have had).
So the next time you meet a veteran instead of treating them like a rabid monkey try treating them like a normal person because that is what we are. While you are at it instead of watching some ridiculous movie take the time to watch something like Restrepo. There you are going to see that veterans are not crazy, but just regular people who performed extraordinary acts in extreme conditions; people who are just looking to restart their life and keep doing the things that many people take for granted. If you’re feeling particularly gracious or pro-active support organizations like IAVA and The Wounded Warrior Project. Those organizations are working to ensure that the politicians that sent us to war keep their promises and give us the care we need now that we are home. They also help veterans out on a more personal level. Hopefully, in time as people become more educated we will begin to see these issues in a new light and the stigma that is now attached to them will start to fade away, and also, let’s try not to jump to conclusions so quick–especially in situations like this.