The Mt. Rainier Shooting and PTSD: How the Media Got It Wrong
Great service to our servicemen and women: Run right out and decalre you’re the experts on the facts….
The massacre at Ft. Hood two years ago stunned the nation in its cold-blooded calculation. The high body count was just as shocking as the fact soldiers were killed not in combat, but on the grounds of a military installation. Before the slain soldiers were buried, many in the media speculated on a link between combat stress and the shooting, the correlation being that war trauma had driven a soldier to commit those crimes.
When news reports finally explained that Nidal Hasan hadn’t deployed during his Army career, the narrative shifted to secondary PTSD. The thought was that his work as a psychiatrist could have caused it. The reality, however, was that Hasan’s personal beliefs about the United States and the military were among the chief motivations behind the killings. Taken together, the prevailing narrative from those early reports—intentional or not—was this: Post-traumatic stress is a strong factor in violent crimes, and anyone who has deployed to a combat zone is capable of the same.
That narrative—fairly common since John Rambo hit movie screens in 1982—bubbled to the surface once again with the killing of Park Ranger Margaret Anderson on January 1st by Benjamin Colton Barnes, a 24 year-old Iraq Veteran. Within hours of the Rainier shooting, journalists and writers clamored to mention Barnes’ war record, combat stress, and even his duty station in a dizzying effort to find a connection:
The problem? It wasn’t true.
As more information became available on Barnes, it grew clear that his troubles had little to do with his service in Iraq or his assignment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. According to The Seattle Times, Barnes was apparently disturbed before he entered the Army—having been expelled from school as a teenager. Additionally, military records show Barnes served in a headquarters communications job in Iraq. A spokesman at Lewis-McChord told the Times there was no record of Barnes having received a Combat Action Badge, indicating he probably never came under fire in Iraq.
While violence is undoubtedly a potential consequence of war-related trauma, highly publicized crimes by active duty members and Veterans cast the overwhelming majority of law abiding Vets in a horrifying—and typically unfair—light. As one Army officer pointed out recently, sensational stories devoid of context (like those about Barnes) inhibit the ability for people to assess likelihood and frequency in a given population. He cites the availability heuristic, which says people ‘predict the frequency of an event, or a proportion within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind.’
Do yourself a favor: Get the facts and understand the reality of PSTD and people who have “issues” already.