grouping shootings under PTSD is easy way out

In Tuesday’s Harvard Crimson, three Arab-American students wrote an opinion piece where they claimed that the person responsible for the Fort Hood shootings, Maj. Nidal Hasan, was being targeted for his religion rather than the true motive for his actions — PTSD. I find this article problematic for a number of reasons — its misunderstanding of PTSD, the way it blows off his ties to extremist Muslims and — most importantly — the way that it groups Fort Hood with a number of other military shootings, alleging the common link is PTSD, when in reality these shootings cannot be blanketed with PTSD.

First of all, PTSD is not the same as depression or an anxiety disorder. The specific characteristics of PTSD are reliving events, hyperarousal and avoidance. Although avoidance is a common symptom that could be seen in depression or an anxiety disorder — avoidance is avoiding situations that cause reliving of traumatic events, so likely this means a lot of seclusion and anti-social behavior — the other two main symptoms are related to experiencing a trauma.

PTSD is common and not regulated to veterans — anyone who experiences a traumatic event (a car crash, watching a loved one die, being raped) can relive the event in their minds and experience hyperarousal, which is when people are on “high alert” and are much more aware of their surroundings, perhaps being on guard all the time or easily startled by loud noises.

For veterans, PTSD manifests itself most often when soldiers deal with combat. The things they see, hear, do in combat are often scarring and horrifying — killing someone, treating wounds for children who were tortured by the enemy, watching friends and mentors die in the line of fire — but Hasan had never seen combat. The Crimson’s op-ed authors claim that just hearing these horrific stories from other people caused him PTSD, but I think it would more make him depressed or nervous/anxious to be deployed. PTSD results from a first-hand experience, not a second-hand one.

Second, they make the claim that people are too easily diving onto his Muslim heritage as a motive for these killings. An understandable criticism, but one that simply can’t be ignored in this case. One can’t ignore the fact that he had contact with a radical Muslim cleric or that he felt like Muslims should be allowed to leave the military as conscentious objectors. The importance he put on his religion makes it impossible to ignore as a possible motivation, especially when he connected his religion to his deployment.

Third, all cases of military shooting cannot just be thrown under the category of “PTSD” — this article blankets several incidents of military personnel opening fire on other military personnel without mentioning the distinct differences that make it inaccurate to label their causes all as “PTSD.” I think it’s all too easy to slap “PTSD” on something and then neglect to look deeper into the cause/motivation.

The cases mentioned are:

1. Fort Bragg, Oct. 27, 1995: William Kreutzer, Jr. opens fire on soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Random act of PTSD? Not exactly — Kreutzer had been deployed, and he had an obsession with certain killing rampage statistics and was often ridiculed and teased by soldiers. Whether he had psychological issues before deployment or not, he reportedly gave several warnings that he was going to snap and even made a telephone call the morning of the shooting to warn that he was going to open fire. His threat was dismissed because he was deemed a “pussy.” The resulting event is as much the consequence of ignoring serious threats and ridiculing as a person who had serious psychological issues.

2. Camp Pennsylvania, March 23, 2003: U.S. Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar launches a grenade attack on fellow soldiers sleeping in tents, then fires his rifle as troops wake up from the attack. Akbar was with troops in Kuwait. He had a documented history of mental illness, and he also reportedly felt extremely ridiculed by his fellow soldiers. His story mimicks Kreutzer’s in that both men had a history of mental illness that seemingly began before deployment, and both were mistreated by their fellow soldiers. Akbar shared something with Nidal Hasan, in that he was Muslim and torn about the thought of killing fellow Muslims.

3. US. National Guard Headquarters in Tikrit, Iraq, June 7, 2005: Two soldiers are killed when a claymore mine detonated in the window of the room where they were playing the game Risk, and Sgt. Alberto Martinez is originally charged with the crime. Martinez was eventually acquitted of the charges, but there was no mention of PTSD in the prosecution or defense’s arguments. The prosecution focused on Martinez’s rocky relationship with one of the victims, Capt. Phillip Esposito, in which arguments between the two were witnessed by many before they were deployed to Iraq. The defense argues that the evidence in circumstantial. No one mentions PTSD, although the possibility of a mental disability such as Martinez being mentally retarded is mentioned. It’s also hard to say PTSD is the root of this attack because no one was ever convicted, and it’s dangerous to assume Martinez was the person responsible even though he was not found guilty of the crime.

4. Tinker Air Force Base, Feb. 25, 2008: Dustin Thorson kills his two children after an altercation with his estranged wife, Michelle, and then kills himself. This is the first case of PTSD that I found in the list of the authors’ supposed PTSD cases. Thorson was deployed to Iraq from July to October 2006 and had PTSD, and it is likely that his irrational and tragic response to an angry argument with his wife is because of his PTSD. He returns to combat mode and responds to a difficult situation the best way he knows how, using threats and eventually violence.

5. Camp Liberty, May 11, 2009: Sgt. John Russell gets into a fight at a clinic in Camp Liberty in Iraq, stole a weapon from a fellow soldier and went back to the clinic and opened fire. Five soldiers were killed. This is another more relevant case involving PTSD, as Russell was seeking counseling and was on his third tour of duty in Iraq. He believed he was being run out of the military, but the case is so recent that details aren’t as prevalent as the aforementioned cases.

What we can learn from putting these five cases under a microscope, and also the Fort Hood shooting, is that it’s not as easy as blaming incidents on PTSD and ignoring other important factors. The fear of having to choose between your religious identity and national identity, and possibly kill people who don’t share your citizenship but share your religious beliefs, is not PTSD, but it’s a valid concern that can’t be swept under the rug.

Feeling like an outsider and being ridiculed to the point of no return is reminiscent of the motive behind many school shootings, and it’s a plausible motive for a few of the shootings mentioned in the Crimson’s op-ed. You can claim PTSD, but you’re ignoring the hypermasculinity of the military, the way that threats are taken as non-issues and the fact that PTSD is not a synonym for all psychological issues.

The interesting thing about the fourth and fifth cases is that both men were deployed to Iraq and committed murder in fits of rage after arguments, immediately resorting to violence. One in five soldiers who returns from Iraq reports symptoms of PTSD, and the Crimson is right to shed light on this topic because soldiers are being sent on multiple tours of duty, which only reinforces their PTSD and makes it more difficult to separate themselves from a combat lifestyle.

In sum, I think it’s irresponsible to focus on PTSD as the sole issue while ignoring other factors in incidents when soldiers attack their fellow soldiers. It’s a scapegoat that allows people to ignore other possible motives, and ignoring other motives could be detrimental to preventing future soldier-soldier attacks not motivated by PTSD. Giving Nidal Hasan’s religion attention is not an attempt to disgrace all Arab-Americans or Muslims, but rather it’s an appropriate step in understanding Hasan’s motivations as a whole.


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