Are American vets saints or sinners? When incidents such as the 2009 and 2014 Fort Hood shootings, the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh Temple attack and the 2013 Washington Naval Yard shootings—all involving former military personnel—are combined in the media with reports of the epidemic of veteran suicide, veteran homelessness, military sexual trauma, and domestic violence among soldiers, it paints a grim  picture. Yet the portrayal sends a mixed message when paired with the ‘celebrity Generals’ and corporate and political hero worship of serving troops and veterans.  Such media depictions only serve to erect the metaphorical wall even higher between those who serve and those who do not, yet creating a kind of collective guilt among the latter that recoils in horror after such shootings, even as they cannot pass someone in uniform without reaffirming their patriotism with a token nod of support. More perplexing is when such shootings get hijacked by media discussions over PTSD, which distracts everyone from the real issue at stake: the presence of handguns on military bases, which are supposed to be citadels of security.

So which is it: saints or sinners? The answer is complicated, and one that is informed by this country’s collective urge to celebrate all things that support the troops, who Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich describes as the real “One Percent”, but without asking Americans to make a shred of sacrifice. God forbid that taxes were raised to pay for two wars or that anybody in Congress mention talk of a draft. In truth, a cynic might say that the troops are unfurled before the public whenever they help move product — whether to sell newspapers, to sell beer, to sell candidates, and so forth. The military and veterans are together one of the few institutions in America that continues to enjoy near-Universal, non-partisan respect. However this ‘respect’ often translates into little more than a pat on the back, a handshake and a ‘thanks for your service’. The struggles of America’s veterans are real. However, they are neither unblemished heroes nor violent mental psychopaths. What is missing from the veterans’ narrative depicted in the media is the veterans themselves.

Vets are portrayed as national saints or victims and perpetrators. Despite having such obvious symbolic power in America, veterans have little real power. Corporate boardrooms do not welcome them. There are virtually no veteran CEOs who do not work for military-related companies or in a project they did not start themselves. The US Congress has the lowest number of veteran members since the end of WWII. Military pay and benefits—long sacrosanct—are now being targeted as entitlements in fiscal battles in Washington. The VA benefits backlog is still a problem after decades of empty political promises. Many of those vets who do make it into powerful circles are often granted access because of who they come to know, not out of some belief that they merit success for their sacrifices. Most veterans organisations, new and old, have chosen or been forced to pick a partisan political side, despite the fact that neither side can claim to have clean hands when it comes to handling military and veterans affairs.

Madison Avenue has also gotten on the troops-are-heroes gravy train. One can hardly pick up a name-brand product at a grocery store in America without it carrying a notice that some of the corporate proceeds go to helping ‘our heroes’ through a tax-deductible veteran’s charity. The opening or halftime ceremony of every major sporting event features tributes to the troops. While it is encouraging that veterans and charities are receiving this kind of attention, it is clearly not for altruistic motives. Images of US troops are being used to sell products. Almost every major corporate brand in America has a military page on its website where it professes to make special efforts to hire vets—leaving out mention of the tax incentives it receives to do so. For-profit colleges with questionable reputations for quality mercilessly target veterans for their GI Bill funds. Politicians and political action groups are the worst offenders in abusing servicemembers for their own personal gain, from sources as diverse as gay pride rallies to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Despite regulations against it, men and women in uniform are a favourite backdrop for elected officials who hope to gain from the legitimacy and public support the troops enjoy.

One can hardly pick up a name-brand product at a grocery store in America without it carrying a notice that some of the corporate proceeds go to helping ‘our heroes’ through a tax-deductible veteran’s charity.

This year’s Super Bowl featured a Budweiser ad showing a ‘Hero’s Welcome’ for a Lieutenant returning from Afghanistan. Budweiser at one point even claimed to have ‘Army support’ for the ad. Opinion among veterans was split as to whether the commercial stepped over the fine line between recognising the troops and using them to sell products. It is against military regulations to appear in uniform to sell products or to participate in political activities. The US Army initially considered pursuing a cease-and-desist order to prevent the spot from airing and never adequately explained why it decided to allow Budweiser to go-ahead.

By way of contrast, immediately following the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Texas by Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, media reports were quick to point out that it happened on a military post, the shooter was a soldier, a veteran of the Iraq War, and apparently had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Parallels were immediately drawn between this incident, the 2009 Fort Hood shootings by Major Nadal Hassan and the 2013 Washington Naval Yard shootings by Navy Reservist Aaron Alexis. Even the killing of three people at a Jewish community center in Kansas by a Klansman was linked to the gunman’s status as a Vietnam vet. With 24-hour television news and most major newspapers providing extensive coverage in the days and weeks following the Lopez shootings, one would be excused for believing there must be an epidemic of violence among American troops and veterans. Inside each of us, the media appears to insinuate, is a Timothy McVeigh itching to be heard.

But the depiction is false. A law enforcement analysis of 29 active shooter incidents between 1999 and 2012 found that most were workplace-related incidents committed by lone young men, the majority of which used semiautomatic pistols and died in the incident, either by their own hand or through the response of law enforcement personnel. Almost all of them had long-term issues with work or family. The most interesting fact is that of these 29 incidents, only 4 were current or former military personnel. One of them, Major Nadal Hassan, cited Islamic terror as his motive. Another, the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shootings, was motivated by racial hatred. The other two exhibited histories and grievances consistent with the other 25 non-veteran shooters. Based on this data, arguably there is no link between military service, PTSD and shooting rampages.

Specialist Ivan Lopez has the same profile as non-veteran active shooters. He was a young, lone male with a semiautomatic pistol who eventually turned his weapon on himself when confronted by law enforcement. The picture that has emerged of Lopez is of someone struggling to adjust to a new home, a new career and difficulties with his superiors—a situation that is not military-specific whatsoever. He just happened to be a soldier. Contrary to common views, Lopez did not just snap; he was likely harbouring a long-simmering resentment toward his workplace and what he saw as unfairness in his life. The fact he already had his weapon in his car on the day of the shooting incident suggests a degree of pre-meditation or that he was already considering the possibility of taking action.

But the media immediately latched onto the fact he was a soldier, had deployed to Iraq and was being evaluated for PTSD. Much has since been made of the fact that he deployed to Iraq for only four months as proof he could not have PTSD. In fairness, one incident on one day is enough to be traumatised if severe enough. Different people are affected in different ways and, contrary to the media narrative, development and severity of PTSD does not depend upon the number of months or tours served in combat. One of the issues of treating PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury is that they are mental wounds which can only be diagnosed by their symptoms as reported by or observed in the patient.

Perhaps Lopez did have PTSD, perhaps not. There is no way to know now. It actually matters very little. Despite the connection the media immediately draws in such circumstances, there is only a very weak connection between PTSD and violence. However it is clear that Specialist Lopez was struggling to deal with his life in a way that many non-military, non-veteran Americans do every day, a struggle which can lead to violence. However this hasn’t kept the media from playing up the military-PTSD aspect.

When it comes to US troops and veterans, the American media has developed a clearly detectable ‘Madonna/Whore Complex’, in which those who serve are invariably portrayed as either perfections of virtue beyond reproach (see the fawning coverage of David Petraeus prior to 2012) or as victims of the government or society or as perpetrators with festering mental health issues which may lead to suicide, violence or even murder. Consider the following headline: “Veterans with PTSD Linked to Everything That Could Kill Your Children.” Fortunately, it is from the military satire site The Duffel Blog. Adding to this state of affairs is the (ab)use of servicemembers and veterans in media campaigns by politicians, political action committees and corporations for their own gain. Troops have become the new talking babies or cute kittens playing with yarn – mere props to move product and check Americans’ box to pay tribute for their service, and maybe even profit off their presence. Whenever events like the Fort Hood shooting presents us with a more nuanced and untidy picture of our veterans’ well-beings, we tend to veer into the other extreme, painting them with a broad brush as PTSD-addled killers.  That is not to simply grasp the cliché that the truth is somewhere in between, but rather that most of our veterans are not unlike any other segment of the American population.

Take Specialist Ivan Lopez. On another day, in different circumstances, a former police officer, Iraq War vet and Army reservist who decided to switch to driving trucks on active duty to feed his family would have been a hero. He would have been in a Budweiser commercial or spoke at the local VFW. Instead, the media pictures him as a frustrated loser with PTSD who was ten years older than other troops his rank who could not handle his troubles anymore. The veteran is a war hero one day, an armed killer the next. Within hours of the shootings and his suicide, the story was already creating media churn and being put to political use by politicians and advocacy organisations. It has become the latest chapter in the debate about guns in America. One side argues that active shootings like those in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Fort Hood could have been prevented if the public, school officials, and off-duty soldiers were allowed to be armed in public. The message has to focus on Lopez’s undiagnosed PTSD and mental health issues. It was not easy access to firearms that caused this shooting; it was Lopez’s mental health issues. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

Contrary to popular belief, living on a military post means less access and exposure to privately-owned firearms than living off post. The weapons used by Major Nadal Hassan and Specialist Ivan Lopez were obtained off post at private establishments and kept against military regulations. Though every company-sized military element on a base counts hundreds of firearms among its equipment, access to this weaponry is very tightly controlled by commanders and armorers. Troops cannot simply draw out their assigned rifle at will. It can only be for a purpose authorised by the unit commander. Though military posts such as Fort Hood may contain tens of thousands of small arms weapons, they are kept secure in padlocked racks or cages behind bank vault doors armed with alarms that notify military police directly any time an armsroom is accessed. Most military facilities with arms rooms are also manned by soldiers 24 hours a day. Any time a weapon leaves a vault, a paper trail is created as to who signed for it, when, and what armorer allowed it out. Access to weaponry is taken seriously by the US military.

Contrast this with the various disjointed, inconsistent and ill-enforced laws regulating the purchase, use, transport, carrying and storage of civilian firearms outside of bases across the United States. No matter your interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, even transporting a firearm from one town or county to another can lead to an unknowing violation of the law. Each city, county and state seems to have its own rules and regulations and the federal government seems to change its application or interpretation of firearms regulations depending upon who is in Congress or the White House. America’s gun laws, no matter your view of them, are a tragi-comical absolute mess.

Many troops own personal firearms as well. Military policy requires these weapons be registered with their unit and must be stored in the same armsroom as military weaponry and are subject to the same controls. As with military-issue weaponry, access to personal weapons is only by arrangement with the armorer with the permission of the unit commander.

Yet some on the right would like to see more guns on military posts. More guns would not stop or deter an active shooter like Ivan Lopez. These are people who have determined they will commit a violent act and will continue to shoot people until they are shot by police or shoot themselves. The Hasan and Lopez shootings took place during the duty day and military police were on the scene within fifteen minutes. Both incidents were over quickly. Introducing an off duty soldier who happened by chance to be in the area and carrying his personal weapon into the situation could serve only to cause confusion among law enforcement as to who the perpetrator is. This would be made worse if word spreads across a post and draws armed soldiers who want to help, creating a tangle of armed troopers without command and control. Soldiers do not behave that way in combat and it makes equally less sense to do so on post. Law Enforcement, with special training, radios and coordination should handle such incidents.

It is rather ironic that the media focused on the military and PTSD aspect of the Lopez shooting rather than use it as an opportunity to discuss responsible gun laws. Instead, they’re portraying soldiers as victim-perpetrators to sell newspapers. In the case of Ivan Lopez, it was not PTSD or a soldier’s fondness for guns or access to military weaponry that allowed this latest Fort Hood shooting to occur. Lopez’s grievances with the world were not military-specific. They were the same issues many civilians have. Military weapons were not involved.

It was the easy access to weaponry off post that allowed Ivan Lopez to obtain a firearm in Killeen, Texas (ironically, from the same gun shop where Major Nadal Hasan bought one of his guns) and bring it onto post to kill his fellow soldiers. This incident had nothing to do with Lopez being a soldier or if he had PTSD or any failure in military policy as the media and some politicians and advocacy groups have claimed. It was the America outside of Fort Hood that allowed this incident to occur. If America outside the walls of military posts had as sensible gun control laws and took weapons as seriously as the America inside them, active shootings like this could be stopped.

Which  returns us to the general public’s schizophrenic relationship with its armed forces. So long as there is this metaphorical wall between us and them, there will be this mixed message after tragedies whereby we praise our heroes with our right hand, while condemning their PTSD with our other hand, even as we refuse to do anything to fix our own gun-obsessed culture. Carry on America “supporting the troops,” with tributes, fundraisers, and shout-outs during seventh innings.

Keep patting backs, wearing t-shirts and slapping on bumper stickers. But if you really want to pay tribute to their sacrifice, fix this country. Make it into one that is worth fighting for and that the troops are welcome and safe to return to.

Photograph: A rose left at site of recent Fort Hood shooting (by Bob Jones, AP)

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