Naval Yard Massacre Hard Reality: Two Million Returned Vets Includes Many Criminals and PTSD Sufferers
The details are gradually emerging, there is much we don't know about the navy yard shooter Aaron Alexis. Yet, the shooting rampage of the navy veteran who retained a contractor's pass to the navy yard inWashington DC has a context: a stressed and over-extended US military, exhausted by more than a decade of "war on terror" tours of duty, and a huge population of veterans who bear the mental and physical scars of their service and often struggle to reintegrate.
Aaron Alexis served for four years, from 2007 to 2011, as an aviation electrician in the US navy. A reservist, he did not serve in a foreign theater but was decorated with two of the most respected medals bestowed by the US military. But alongside these worthy elements of his resume, it is also reported that he was arrested twice on firearms offences, in 2004, before he signed up to the navy, and in 2010. Neither incident resulted in a criminal conviction, though the latter one apparently precipitated his discharge from the service. The Associated Press has also now reported that he had recently been receiving treatment from the Veterans Administration for mental health problems.
We have no insight, as yet, into Alexis's possible motive, but according to a statement provided by Seattle police, Alexis's father told detectives his son had "anger management problems" associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is estimated to afflict upwards of 30% of veterans, and while resources have been added, treatment for psychological ailments is sorely lacking. The greatest threat by far posed by traumatized veterans is not to others, but to themselves: it is estimated that 22 veterans in the US are committing suicide every day.
The PTSD epidemic is just one of many problems faced by the US military as it deals with the fallout from over a decade of war and occupation. Another dimension of its difficulties is that during the "war on terror", the US military relaxed its entry criteria in order to cope with a mid-decade recruitment crisis. As a direct consequence, over 100,000 Americans with criminal convictions – including serious felony offenses from rape and murder, to assault – benefitted from the "moral waiver" program, which allowed the military to look the other way when recruiting soldiers with shady pasts.
The Pentagon tried to keep this major influx of former criminals into the ranks secret from the American public, but the information was prised out by the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2007. The US military also retained thousands of soldiers despite complaints of PTSD and other psychological complaints, often sending them back into the warzone. Thousands of those are now back in the US, trying to put fractured lives back together.
Why did the Pentagon allow this to happen?
By the time the conflict in Iraq was peaking, around 2005, the US military had reached breaking-point. From 2005 to 2007, the US military was in one of the worst recruitment crises in its history, missing its targets by the largest margin since 1979, when the US was still suffering the effects of so-called "Vietnam syndrome", which had turned many Americans off military service. With the Bush administration struggling to populate two foreign occupations but unwilling to bring back conscription ("the draft"), the Pentagon turned to loosening regulations on recruitment and retention for various categories of people who had previously been barred from enlistment.
I wrote a book-length investigation of what happened in the aftermath,Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members and Criminal to Fight the War on Terror, which detailed how the US military trained thousands of undesirables in weapons and shipped them out to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are now 2 million veterans of Bush's "global war on terror" back in the US. Thanks to the "moral waiver" program, many thousands of these have a very different background than the regular US military veteran. Even at best, veterans score disproportionately high rates for unemployment, homelessness, substance abuse and mental ill-health.
The phrase used by military analysts and investigators is "war coming home": they fear the risk of veterans of the "war on terror" using skills learned in service to inflict mass casualties within American borders. We saw this fear realized in August 2012 when the neo-Nazi veteran Wade Michael Page murdered six people in a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In the aftermath, the independent US military newspaper Stars & Stripes reported that Page was "steeped in white supremacy during his army days and spouted his racist views on the job as a soldier". Just weeks later, law enforcement agents unearthed a violent militia operating at Fort Stewart in Georgia, which was allegedly planning to assassinate the US president. Lest we forget, the anti-government and racist extremist Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and wounded hundreds of others, was a veteran of the first Gulf war.
Each case is different: if we ever discover Aaron Alexis's motive, it will have its own particularity. The sad truth of "war on terror" veterans, struggling to reintegrate, often isolated and lacking support, is that the greatest danger they pose is to themselves, by self-inflicted violence. But we have to brace ourselves, too, for future instances of the "war coming home" in very public, tragic ways.