Aaron Alexis and the Angry-Vet Narrative

After the Navy Yard shooting, media outlets pounced on the gunman's veteran status—unfairly attributing his violence and mental health status to his military experience. 
FBI/Handout via Reuters

As I write this in a university library, dangerous and unstable people surround me. More than a third of college students exhibit depression, which drives suicide and murder among this fragile population, and more than a hundred murders occurred between 2005 and 2007 on college campuses. One can only conclude this terrifying behavior is the result of academic pursuits.

Of course, most reasonable people would reject that premise. Students carry mental health issues with them into college, and clinicians would say the stressors students encounter are only part of the equation. A majority would probably caution against a simplistic narrative that would paint an unfair picture of students, most of whom are well adjusted and make it through life without murdering anyone.

But veterans are not afforded similar restraint when we talk about the intersection between mental health, violent crime and personal backgrounds. On Sept. 16, Aaron Alexis opened fired in the Washington Navy Yard, killing 12 and wounding three before a police officer shot and killed him.

The Washington Post fueled early hysteria: "Navy Yard gunman said to be troubled veteran” led a report shortly after the incident. The Colorado Gazette blared “Gunman was in Navy Reserve; arrested in 2004.” The Fresno (Calif.) Bee went further with a sub-headline that read “Former navy reservist arrested in 2004 Seattle shooting; suffered anger-fueled 'blackout.'"

A shallow discussion on mental health and the veteran experience has led to media shorthand for violence linked to former troops. Exposure to profound trauma mixed with weapons training invokes a strong image of downtrodden veterans, and news outlets drew tenuous lines from that idea to the Navy Yard shooter.

Alexis, a Navy reservist, never saw combat and maintained electrical instruments during his service. He was honorably discharged despite the Navy’s pursuit of a general discharge following a stream of bad conduct. Yet headlines that mentioned his service carried an unsettling subtext—his military training helped in the crime, and since he was a veteran, he had been struggled with post-traumatic stress.

Veteran advocates immediately protested the media’s portrayal, calling it inaccurate, damaging and untrue. The latest (and most prominent) comes from CNN’s Peter Bergen:

It's a deadly combination: men who have military backgrounds -- together with personal grievances, political agendas or mental problems -- and who also have easy access to weapons and are trained to use them.

Bergen links Alexis and Nidal Hassan, the radicalized Fort Hood shooter, by virtue of their service. One issue noted by Bergen is access to weapons and military training.

He makes an extraordinary leap here.

Alexis murdered 12 people with a legally obtained shotgun and a handgun taken from a security guard, and while he may have fired a shotgun during basic training, nothing in his job description suggests proficiency with the weapon. Of course, the design of a shotgun demands little aptitude for effective use.

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Alex Horton is a freelance writer on veterans and foreign affairs. His work has been published by The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Washingtonian magazine. He served as an Army infantryman for 15 months in Iraq.

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