Aaron Alexis and the Angry-Vet Narrative

By Alex Horton
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.

In the case of Hasan, sustained training on the issue M-9 pistol is relatively rare, especially for an officer in a non-combat role. Hasan sought an advanced pistol and practiced on civilian indoor ranges, and not only failed to integrate any semblance of Army training, he actively ignored it. A part owner of the range Hasan visited recalled that he fired at the heads of range targets instead of the center of the body, where soldiers are instructed to fire. Despite Bergen’s assertion, Alexis and Hasan were granted the same access to weapons as any civilian.

The other half of Bergen’s analysis falls on mental issues of troops and veterans. Kate Hoit at the Department of Veterans Affairs exhaustively debunked any notion between military service and violence, as well as any correlation between post-traumatic stress and murder, so I will not repeat it here. But in Alexis’ case, his mental health condition appears shoddy even before his Navy service after reports surfaced detailing gun-related offenses.  

Bergen’s implication is a worrying one: even with access to the same information I have, the impulse to implicate trauma and weapons training is strong enough to disregard the fact that both men hadn’t deployed to a combat zone and did not carry the stereotypical mark of post-traumatic stress—a pervasive characterization from which he draws conclusions in his piece. Bergen should know better but doesn’t, and as a result, many civilians who read his piece won’t know, either.

The debate has appropriately shifted to the rigors of background checks and security clearances along the fault lines of mental illness, which should have caught Alexis’ mental instability and Hasan’s communication with radical Islamists. Bergen pegs these themes in his piece, but an issue much closer to most of his audience is the mental state of young veterans in the workplace, where most civilians will encounter them.

survey conducted by the Center for a New American Security last year found more than half of the 69 company respondents practiced caution in hiring of veteran applicants due to stereotypes of a population riddled with mental illness. Only harm can come to veterans when small business owners, hiring managers and college application board members read and internalize the stories that Bergen and others wrote.  

And that’s a duality of experience our newest veterans face: standing ovations during the Super Bowl on one side, and on the other, a general unease as civilians confront those who went to war for them repeatedly over the last decade (though Alexis and Hasan never did). Aaron Alexis and Nidal Hasan are anomalies that Bergen and countless other journalists may have recast as the new normal. In the meantime, untold numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are succeeding in all levels of public and private sectors because of their combat experience, and not in spite of it.

How’s that for a headline?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/09/aaron-alexis-and-the-angry-vet-narrative/280001/