The Dangerous Perpetuation of the "Broken Vet" Stereotype

Highlighting PTSD as the cause of violence can stigmatize veterans needing care.

Posted Nov 09, 2018

The shooting at the California bar this week is a tragedy.  It is being farther compounded by the shooter’s post-traumatic stress disorder and military service being used as headline material across the country.  For every other military person or veteran out there considering getting help or struggling to admit they need it, moments like these further stigmatize an already highly stigmatized issue for this population. 

Moreover, it signals to those who do not have exposure to military members that hiring veterans, admitting them to university, or engaging with them is a risky proposition.  It reinforces what 40 percent of Americans already believe about the 2.8 million post-9/11 veterans—that the majority suffer from a mental health condition.  This is a belief not born out of fact, but of moments like this when haphazard reporting fails to address the complexity of the situation.

When it comes to veterans and explaining criminal behavior or poor judgment, PTSD becomes the default explanation.  While it can certainly be a contributing factor, especially with the combined presence of an alcohol use disorder, it is, at best, too simplistic an explanation of human behavior. At worst, it can be lazy or sensationalistic. 

Military service attracts people from all backgrounds and walks of life.  A profession that provides marketable skills, healthcare, and education benefits, it is particularly appealing to those who are also looking to find themselves or find stability.  Men who enlist in the Army are twice as likely as to have been sexually abused as children and to have grown up in an environment that included domestic violence and substance use. 1 in 5 soldiers had diagnoses like intermittent explosive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder prior to enlisting. Not to mention, the military does not screen for personality characteristics or constellations that may render someone unfit for service. 

Frankly, it is alarming to assume that combat exposure or military trauma and the development of PTSD so alters people that their underlying personality characteristics and experience during the developmental stages of childhood play no part.  We must understand the whole person and cease relying on PTSD as the singular explanation for atrocities committed by military members. 

The vast majority of military members who experience combat or witness traumatic events while serving in uniform do not come home and embark on shooting rampages.  The ticking time bomb trope of the PTSD-ravaged veteran, made popular by movies like Rambo, is a perversion of the suffering veterans with PTSD actually experience.  Those diagnosed with PTSD are far more likely to isolate, withdraw, and suffer in silence than harm or kill civilians. There were other veterans present at the Thousand Oaks massacre, one tragically killed, who were living their lives as normal, productive Americans. 

PTSD chronically afflicts about 7 percent of all veterans.  The greater issue is that we are failing to engage a different enemy on a much bigger front.  The stress of returning to the dramatically different circumstance of civilian life affects between 44 percent and 72 percent of all veterans. Coming home seems to be causing more problems than war itself.

We must not let the actions of a disturbed individual cloud all that veterans have and are accomplishing.  Americans need to begin treating mental health disorders, especially PTSD, like we treat and view cancer.  Therapy is hard because it is a treatment.  Chemotherapy is hard because it is a treatment.  Rarely do cancer patients quit treatment even though it is excruciating—they continue because it is the best opportunity to save their life. Good, evidence-based treatment for PTSD is the same.  It is excruciating and it may be the best opportunity to save a life.  Undeniably, more funding and research is needed on many fronts but we must stop looking for a rapid “fix.”  There is no panacea, no magic pill or cure all.  PTSD is not a life sentence. It is also not a guarantee of violence or bad behavior. What our veterans need are reliable support systems and de-stigmatized, easier access to care.