Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans Push Back Against Stereotype of ‘Crazy Vet’

March 20, 2012 (chron) – The shooting massacre of Afghan civilians in Panjwai earlier this month has sent pundits and journalists scrambling for clues to explain what could have led Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to sneak off his base and allegedly slaughter 16 unarmed men, women and children.

Reporters interviewed Bales’ neighbors, tracked down his childhood friends, scoured his financial records, and detailed his run-ins with the law to produce profiles of 38-year-old soldier that ran in newspapers across the country over the weekend.

Now Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the blogosphere are pushing back against what they see as an all-too-common tendency for such coverage to perpetuate a stereotype of the “dangerous veteran.”

On Ink Spots, a blog dedicated to security issues, Iraq War veteran Jason Fritz argues that “Robert Bales is not the victim“:

Ever since the massacre, Fritz wrote, “newspaper outlets (are) tripping over each other to explain why it was everyone’s fault except SSG Bales’ (again, assuming he committed the murders based on his apparent confession) that 16 Afghan men, women, and children ended up dead.”

Fritz goes on to challenge what he describes as innuendo and inaccuracies in articles published by The Washington Post and Bloomberg, including the possibility that Bales’ failure to get promoted caused him stress, that his family’s finances had been strained “to the breaking point” by multiple deployments on a sergeant’s salary, and that Bales had been told his deployments were over, “and then literally overnight that changed.”

Fritz says that Bales should have known the Army can’t promise not to deploy a healthy soldier again, and points out that he actually made more on a sergeant’s salary than the median income for the area where he lived in Tacoma, Wash. Fritz also speculates that Bales’ promotion might have been thwarted by his own actions — possibly because of past arrests for assault and a hit-and-run accident.

“Hundreds of thousands of troops have gone through what SSG Bales has gone through – or worse – and none of them shot 16 Afghan civilians,” Fritz concludes. “This entire situation is sad – for the Army, for Bales and his family and his unit, and especially for the Afghans who lost loved ones. Let’s keep perspective on that. And let’s not take the easy way out and blame The Man for the actions of a man because it fits your narrative. That’s not justice and it’s irresponsible. Robert Bales is not the victim here – the victims are in Afghanistan.”

Joao Hwang, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, also wrote about Bales in his Huff Post blog:

It is not fair to justify the killing of innocent civilians because they practice the same religion as al Qaeda, it is not fair to judge all the people in Afghanistan for the actions of insurgents, nor is it fair to judge all Muslims by the actions of some. By the same rationale, it is not fair to judge the hard work and integrity of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan for the actions of one soldier. By and large, coalition forces in Afghanistan try to do the right thing and work hard to engage the local communities in an extraordinarily complex environment. I know my colleagues and I did the best we could when we were there. There were times when we suspected the very people we greeted with “Zengay” (“Hello”) during the day might have had sympathies with the Taliban, but we carried on with common courtesy and tried to win their “hearts and minds.” An incident like the one in Panjwai does much to damage the work done by the rest of the coalition forces.

Hwang says if you want to support the troops, ask the right questions:

What was his mental state when he allegedly killed those civilians? If he was under mental distress, why was he not removed from the battlefield? Were there signs before the deployment? What is the military doing to take soldiers out deployment rotations if they show such signs? What is the military culture regarding soldiers’ mental health help? Is there a stigma? If so, what is the military doing to change it? What kind of mental health assistance are they getting after they leave the service?

Such questions are not meant to weaken our nation’s military. They are meant to improve the quality of life of those who fight and have fought for our nation. Those questions should be asked of our policymakers and military leaders, because it is a matter or military readiness. These questions are meant to strengthen our nation’s military because such incidents do affect the mission, as we’re seeing now in Afghanistan. I believe we can do better, and that we need to do better.

In an appearance on the Sunday talk show Meet the Press, Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the nonprofit group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, cautioned against stereotyping veterans as unstable because of the terrible actions of one man. But Rieckhoff said Americans have to ask themselves if it’s fair to send troops back to war zones for four and five tours.

Nobody has been asked to do so much for so long, such a small group of people, less than one-half of 1 percent of the American public.  And we don’t know a lot of the facts on the ground about the situation, they continue to unfold, but what we do know is that our troops are under tremendous strain.  But there’s not necessarily a connection with, for example, traumatic brain injury or PTSD and murderous rampage behavior like this.  This is the exception.  This is not what our troops are made of.  They are honorable, they are courageous, and we all as Americans have to take a deep breath to make sure that we don’t let this man represent so many who have done so much for this country while most folks really haven’t been paying attention.  So if this is what it took for our country to have this conversation about, about the inequality of what we’re asking our folks to do, then that’s a good thing.  But let’s make sure that we understand that coincidence doesn’t necessarily equal causality here.

For milblogger Nick Tran, the fallout from the mass shooting in Panjwai could have a direct impact on his own safety. He is training to deploy to Afghanistan as a medic with the Texas Army National Guard. He wrote about his reaction to the news on his blog, Medic Without Borders:

My heart goes out to the innocent people who lost their lives (especially the children) and the families of the victims in the villages. Wrong is wrong and there is absolutely no justification for that act. I don’t care what you have been through, or how much stress you’ve endured, killing innocent women and children is unacceptable within the Warrior Code. That is supposed to be the defining factor that separates us from our enemies. I’m afraid of the domino-effect that this will have in the upcoming weeks and months as the Taliban has vowed revenge on Western forces.

It is unknown if the combination of the these incidents will drive the Administration to move up their timetable to bring the troops home sooner, or reduce the amount of units that are scheduled to deploy. I fear for the safety of the servicemen and women currently there and it will certainly make any upcoming deployments (to include mine) exponentially more dangerous, not to mention making our objective to build relationships with the Afghan people difficult.

Nonetheless, being a medic, I still want to go. Many will think that I am crazy for feeling that way, but with greater power comes greater responsibility and the greater power that I am referring to in this case are the skills that the ARMY has given me as a healer. I have taken lives in my previous deployments, but on this upcoming one as a medic, I hope to be able to save at least one. I know the special people in my life won’t agree and would prefer that I stay at home. I love them for that, but what good is it to have all of this knowledge if it can’t be put to good use where it’s needed the most?

What do you think? Is the media asking the right questions about Bales and the victims of the shooting?

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