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The Wacko-Vet Myth

Now echoed by the New York Times.

3:00 PM, Jan 14, 2008 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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IN A PAGE-ONE STORY published Sunday, January 13, 2008, "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles," the New York Times reported on homicides by veterans of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seven Times reporters contributed to the lengthy story, which was co-authored by Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez.

The Times "found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war." All but one case involved male veterans. They speculated that their research "most likely uncovered only the minimum number of such cases, given that not all killings" were "reported publicly or in detail," and because "it was often not possible to determine the deployment history of other service members arrested on homicide charges."

The Times cited experts including Robert Jay Lifton, a lecturer in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who "used to run 'rap groups' for Vietnam veterans and fought to earn recognition for what became known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD." The story noted that numerous "studies on the problems of Vietnam veterans have established links between combat trauma and higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, gun ownership, child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse--and criminality." It also quoted criminologist Lawrence W. Sherman: "The real tragedy in these veterans' cases is that, where PTSD is a factor, it is highly treatable. . . . And when people are exposed to serious trauma and don't get it treated, it is a serious risk factor for violence."

True, but that is hardly news to the Veterans Administration (VA), or to the Times. On October 11, 2006, the Times ran a story by Scott Shane, "Data Suggests Vast Costs Loom in Disability Claims." It reported that 567,000 veterans had been discharged to that point, 30,000 of whom had sought treatment at VA facilities for PTSD. In November 2006, the VA issued a fact sheet on services for returning combat veterans: "About one-third of these combat veterans who seek care from VA have a possible diagnosis of a mental disorder . . . including PTSD. . . . Since the war began, VA has activated dozens of new PTSD programs around the country to assist veterans in dealing with the emotional toll of combat. . . . Studies of PTSD patients in general have suggested as many as half may enjoy complete remission and the majority of the remainder will improve."

In 2007, the VA expanded its "poly-trauma network sites" and clinics all across the country, but VA officials who testified in Congress all agreed that still more must be done. It will take not only more hard work but more money. A January 2007 John F. Kennedy School of Government research report by Harvard policy analyst Linda Bilmes projected that about half of the 749,932 veterans to be discharged through 2007 might sooner or later be "seeking care" for whatever conditions, and that the total cost of providing lifetime medical care to all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for all medical needs could be somewhere around half a trillion dollars.

"Given that many veterans rebound successfully from their war experiences and some flourish as a result of them," Sontag and Alvarez observe, "veterans groups have long deplored the attention paid to the minority of soldiers who fail to readjust to civilian life." "Clearly," they aver, "committing homicide is an extreme manifestation of dysfunction for returning veterans, many of whom struggle in quieter ways."

This "extreme manifestation" is indeed extremely rare. The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and other veterans' advocacy groups are absolutely correct that not merely "many" but the vast majority of veterans not only remain completely law-abiding but go on to lead stable and productive personal, professional, and civic lives. Assuming 121 homicide cases in relation to 749,932 total discharges through 2007, 99.98 percent of all discharged Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have not committed or been charged with homicide.

And assuming 121 cases and 749,932 total discharges, the homicide offending rate for the discharged veterans would be 16.1 per 100,000. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has demographic data aplenty on homicide offending rates. For instance, in 2005, for white males aged 18-24, the rate was about 20 per 100,000. The Times opined that 121 was the "minimum" number, even as it counted veterans charged but not convicted with veterans tried and found guilty. Doubling the number to 242 would double the rate to 32.2 per 100,000.

Such crude but contextualizing calculations aside, the right question to ask is whether the veterans, other things being equal (controlling for age, race, gender, education, income, prior criminal history, and other variables), offend at rates that are significantly different from otherwise comparable groups (including groups that have an extreme PTSD incidence). Without doing the relevant statistical (multiple-regression) analyses with all the requisite empirical data, it is impossible to say.

In April 2007, BJS issued a detailed report showing that veterans were half as likely as non-veterans to be in prison, but that was explained mainly by the fact that two-thirds of male veterans in the population at large were aged 55 or older (older people are less likely to be found behind bars). The incarcerated veterans were somewhat more likely than incarcerated non-veterans to have committed violent crimes, and far more likely to have committed violent crimes against females or minors. There is, however, no evidence at all that ex-military personnel, including veterans who served in combat theatres and saw action, figure significantly or disproportionately in murder, rape, robbery, burglary, or property crimes.

The "Deadly Echoes" story spotlighted an important issue and sensitively profiled several tragic incidents. In many respects it was a model piece of journalism. But, in such a lengthy report, the Times should have done more to put its 121 cases against a broader data backdrop or two, been clearer about what nobody really knows about the subject, and taken much greater care than it did to avoid echoing what the VFW, in a 2006 story referenced by the reporters, rightly rejected as the "wacko-vet" myth.

John J. DiIulio Jr. is a contributing editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.