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What Nidal Hasan, Timothy McVeigh, and the Beltway Sniper Have in Common: All Were Scarred by Pointless U.S. Wars

Some of the most notorious massacres of the past 15 years have been committed by veterans whose brains have been severely damaged from trauma or exposure to toxic chemicals.
 
 
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The media were so busy linking alleged Fort Hood murderer Major Nidal Hasan to international Islamic terrorism the last few weeks that they hardly noted the execution of the Beltway sniper, John Allen Muhammad, on November 10th. Seven years ago, Muhammad was at the top of conservative commentators' Islamofascists-with-Links-to-Al Qaeda lists. Now, like then, the search for foreign links is proving to be a fruitless, distracting us from the abundant evidence of a causal connection between such murders and service in the U.S. military.

Consider the case of John Allen Muhammad, (formerly John Allen Williams). In her recently published memoir, Scared Silent, Mildred Muhammad, the later of his two ex-wives, writes that her husband went to the 1991 Gulf War a "happy," "focused, and "intelligent" man, who returned home "depressed," "totally confused," and "violent," making her fear for her life. In their briefs, Muhammad's appeals lawyers stressed that his "severe mental illness" never came up at trial, where he was allowed to represent himself despite obvious mental incompetence. (Till the end, he maintained his innocence, claiming that at the time of the killing spree he was in Germany for dental work.)

In seeking clemency and a stay of execution, Muhammad's lawyers presented psychiatric reports diagnosing Schizophrenia and brain scans documenting profound malformations consistent with psychotic disease. Neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor Virginia Governor Tim Kaine were impressed. According to Governor Kaine, "crimes that are this horrible, you just can't understand…." And one day before Veterans Day, John Allen Muhammad was executed by lethal injection.

Muhammad's lawyers might have included other facts.

Mental disorders from depression to mood swings, thought disorders, violent outbursts, and delusions are not uncommon among Gulf War veterans in addition to physical symptoms such as rashes, vertigo, respiratory and gastrointestinal problem, and neurological diseases like Parkinson's, ALS, and brain tumors. According to Dr. William E. Baumzweiger, a California psychiatrist with expertise in psychiatric ailments of Gulf War veterans, "a small but significant number of Gulf War veterans become homicidal" seemingly "out of nowhere." Indeed as early as 1994, University of Texas epidemiologist Dr. Robert Haley, the preeminent researcher of Gulf War disease, had demonstrated that the brain scans of veterans with Gulf War illness were distinctly abnormal.

Last year a blue-panel, congressionally-mandated Gulf War Research Advisory Committee (RAC) finally confirmed what veterans and their families have long asserted: That "without a doubt," Gulf War illness, as it's come to be called, is a profound, multi-system physical illness "caused" by brain-damaging chemicals to which troops were exposed by the Department of Defense. The RAC report identified three specific neurotoxins as certain culprits: anti-nerve gas pills that troops were forced to take (or risk court martial), insecticides and repellants that drenched troops' tents, clothing, and gear, and nerve gases including sarin (the killer chemical in the Tokyo subway attack) emitted into the air when U.S. forces dismantled and demolished a vast munitions storage facility in Khamisiyah, Iraq. Muhammad's lawyers pointed to childhood beatings as a cause of his psychiatric disease and brain malformation, claiming that Gulf War syndrome exacerbated these conditions. But they didn't mention that Mohammad had no history of mental illness before the war--and that during the war he was stationed in Khamisiyah.

It probably wouldn't have helped. In 2002, another Gulf War veteran, Louis Jones Jr. was executed for the 1995 rape and murder of a young female soldier, Pvt. Tracie Joy McBride. Like Sergeant Muhammad, Sergeant Jones was an exemplary soldier decorated in the war; but also like Muhammad, he returned from Desert Storm depressed, disoriented, and increasingly anti-social and bizarre. Like Muhammad, his defense was inadequate--but his appeals lawyer displayed MRIs and other scans of his abnormal brain, arguing that it was evidence of the brain damage from toxins he and other veterans with Gulf War disease were exposed to in-country. Supporting the petition for clemency was the written testimony of Dr. Haley that "there is now a compelling involuntary link between Mr. Jones' neurotoxic war injury and his inexplicable crime." Like Muhammad, Jones was stationed in Khamisiyah during the demolition, which poisoned thousands of troops and then thousands more as sarin plumes traveled far and wide, a fact the government hid for close to a decade.