I worked in a television newsroom in the late ’70s. Back then, the most inflammatory phrase you could attach to a person’s name was “Vietnam veteran”… as in:
“Vietnam veteran Joe Smith has been arrested today and is expected to be charged with murder … ”
We never mentioned the name of a soldier from the war in Southeast Asia without “Vietnam veteran” attached to the front end. It seemed a necessary descriptor, especially in the case of a crime of violence, terror or just plain lunacy. It was as if we were providing our viewers with an answer to the ever-present question: Why would someone do that?
This came to mind as we all faced, with our hearts aching, the event on May 11 at Camp Liberty in Baghdad. Five U.S. coalition force members were shot and killed in a clinic set up to help soldiers deal with the stress of war. Two others were wounded. One U.S. soldier – the suspected shooter – is in custody.
As we sort through the horrifying details of this story, our search for information turns up a number of sobering statistics:
- There has been a steady rise in violent crime within the U.S. military in the last year.
- Sexual assault cases in the rank and file were up 26 percent in 2008.
- The incidence of suicide among Iraq vets, some of whom have been sent four to five times into the war zone, is at record levels and rising every year.
- Suicide among military recruiters is climbing, as the stress to replenish the dwindling supply of recruits reaches an all-time high; nearly three out of four (73 percent) of the recruiters are soldiers back from a tour in Iraq.
It’s bad. Really bad.
And I see it coming – the phrase “Iraq war vet” in front of any soldier’s name connected with a violent crime. Never mind the implicit indictment of every person who has served in Iraq. Forget the unspoken conclusion that each one of them is capable of an untoward plunge off the deep end of society’s ragged edge of sanity.
But who would blame or begrudge even one Iraq war veteran the right to a post traumatic stress syndrome breakdown?
It’s an ugly, ugly thing we started over there. And it’s still a long run to the finish line in 2011. We have 139,000 U.S. citizens who are still being exposed to a waking nightmare that has real people with real skin and real blood as the major players.
It’s time to ponder the question: What are we going to do to keep “Iraq war vet” out of our headlines for the next 20 years?
Jan Chapman is a former broadcast journalist, a storyteller and a blogger. She is a member of Church of the Savior, a UCC congregation with Baptist roots in Austin, Texas. She blogs at Thinking in Peaces.