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©Copyright 2011 by Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved

Care needed to interpret new U.K. study of vets in British prisons

The new issue of the British Medical Journal includes an article described as myth-busting, because it shows that in the United Kingdom, veterans with combat trauma are no more likely than other people to end up in prison. The piece is called "Inquiry 'busts the myth' that combat trauma is linked to criminal behaviour" and is written by Ingrid Torjesen.But we need to go beyond the headline for several crucial reasons.

The headline differs in important ways from what is reported in the article, because the inquiry chair, John Nutting QC is quoted as saying that "Ex-servicemen are not committing crimes shortly after leaving the plane from Helmand" but that "The reality is that most ex-servicemen resettle into the community without problems but that, for some, issues arise later in life which can lead to offending." In fact, the report reveals that the average veteran who ends up in prison usually does so later in life than the non-veteran.

It is also important that the report includes the information that ex-servicemembers are actually somewhat less likely than other people to be in prison but also that those ex-service personnel who are imprisoned "are more likely than other prisoners to be there for sexual or violent crimes." The connection between being trained to defend or attack and even to maim or kill and the commission of violent crimes back home seems to need little explanation.

Based on the BMJ article, it appears that many people in the U.K., like many in the U.S., believe that veterans of war are more likely than other citizens to end up in prison. Certainly, there have been many high-profile cases reported in the media of veterans behaving in violent ways. But as of 2007, U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics showed that in 2004, the rate of incarceration in prisons of veterans was actually about half that for people who had not served in the military. [2] I have not been able to find more recent statistics, so the pattern might have changed, but the 2004 date is important, with most veterans of the current wars returning home since that time.

As an advocate for veterans, I naturally do not wish to report that the rate of commission of crime and imprisonment are higher for combat veterans than they actually are, but whatever the case, it is tremendously important to make sure that we understand any possible connections between combat trauma and crime commission and learn what we can do to help. Given that in the U.S. study, crimes of violence are described as more likely to be committed by combat veterans than by others and that acts by the former that lead to prison sentences happen later in their lives, perhaps part of what needs careful study is exactly what happens to them in the years when they are trying to readjust to civilian culture. In the British study, trouble adjusting to civilian life was cited as one of the primary factors related to veterans' criminal behavior.

It is rare that militaries anywhere in the world offer assistance with this readjustment, and that is perhaps not surprising, because to do so requires highlighting how vastly different is military culture from civilian culture. In contrast, in some Native American societies, returning warriors are explicitly and ritually helped to make the transition, which is acknowledged to be vast and difficult, whereas in many cultures including dominant U.S. culture, that is not the case.

It is important to understand that this study was done in Britain, whose culture with regard both to the military and to violence is quite different from here, so we cannot assume that this necessarily proves anything about the U.S. Furthermore, Britain has a much stronger social welfare net, and we know that a major factor driving people into criminal behavior is the unavailability of housing, employment, food, and healthcare.

It is also important to understand that whatever percentage of citizens of any nation who have experienced combat trauma end up engaging in criminal behavior, the courts and the whole society need to understand how having been in combat and/or the conditions of their returning home (and in the U.S., we are doing far too little for our veterans in every single realm [1]) might have led to the commission of their crimes. Some of this consideration appears to be starting to happen to some degree with the establishment of special courts for veterans in this country.


After posting the above essay, longtime veterans advocate John Judge posted the following comment, which provides so much information and such rich, essential context that I wanted to make sure to put it right here after the essay. John Judge wrote:

Good points. I think some of these statistics are misleading. There has for some time been a practice in sentencing if not in conviction of seeing combat trauma as a mitigating factor in both civilian and military courts. One measure might be to look at how many veterans in prison for violent or sexual crimes have any criminal convictions in their pre-military life. Years ago, when battered women's shelters were being established the organizers in several cities told me that 95% of more of the victims were girlfriends or spouses of cops, GIs or veterans. Many of those abusers go unconvicted. I also have seen that a very high percentage of those people committing acts of mass violence or serial killings are veterans. That there are less veterans in prison now than in the post-Vietnam era, when they had the highest incarceration, divorce, drug abuse and suicide rates of any segment of the population is not due to a reduction in combat stress. Their continuing high rates of bad discharge, unemployment and homelessness (sometimes as much a 4 times for Black veterans) must also be contributing to criminal behavior, as well as drug and alcohol abuse habits picked up during service years. War trauma can also cause function and memory loss, as seen in veterans who come back with much smaller vocabularies following college educations. That statistic reflects two trends; one much higher incarceration rates for civilians than in the past, with one in 44 serving prison time during their lives, and over 7 million incarcerated today in the prison-industrial complex, mostly for non-voilent crimes, and even higher rates for Blacks and Hispanics than whites, the other is far fewer veterans by number than in the past wars. So, looking at what percentage of veterans, and veterans of color, end up committing violent or sexual crimes on return to civilian life after combat out of all veterans as a category would be more instructive than their percentage of the prison population, especially if compared to other identifiable groups in civilian life. I know the suicide rates for both active duty and veterans outstrip any other social category, and that is a violent crime against self but does not lead to incarceration. In any case the larger number of Vietnam era veterans led to larger percentages of veterans in prison in the past in my view. Now that profits can be made from prison labor directly, the trend to incarcerate civilians has grown apace. David Grossman's book On Killing gives a very important clue to the suicidal and violent behavior of veterans on return to society that is hidden to most people in the method of training them to kill by repressing their natural reluctance in close combat situations, so they shoot first and evaluate later, and also live with the consequences. That brake is never replaced when they leave the ranks as veterans. Reports of violent crimes against families by veterans returning from combat zones persist to this day. No percentage exists in a vacuum, there are many that need to be considered to get real context for an issue like this.

[1] Paula J. Caplan. (2011). When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[2] http://www.nchv.org/background.cfm

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