Difficult Transitions and Troubling Intersections

When people ask me where I’m from and I say “Fort Bragg,” unless they’re from Northern California, they often say “oh, you’re from North Carolina? I never would have guessed it from your accent! You must be a military brat!” And then I have to explain “no, not that Fort Bragg.” The irony of growing up near a town named Fort Bragg and going on to study military anthropology does not escape me.

As many readers know, we recently experienced a traumatic murder-suicide, in which a 26 year old veteran killed his partner, who was in her 30s (some reports list her as 35, some as 36, and I’m not sure which is correct). Another suicide occurred on the same day, and both events startled the town, as these things tend to do when you live in a small town.

It’s the funny thing about small towns. You think that because of their size, you know all their secrets, but in fact, small towns are better at hiding their secrets than larger ones. I don’t want to speculate too much on the facts of the murder-suicide, because I don’t know much about the details and I’m not that into feeding the gossip mill, but clearly there was a secret sorrow being carried around here, and it was something which was hidden not just from the town, but from family and friends. Or was it? Perhaps it was visible, and no one wanted to face it.

There has been a disturbing trend in the last few years. Domestic violence associated with veterans and members of the military is rising, as are suicide and murder. It is difficult to pin down accurate numbers, partially because there is some deliberate obfuscation going on here, but a rise is most certainly being documented. This is not to say that everyone in the military is an abusive suicidal murderer, of course, but these trends do point to some troubling issues which are clearly not being addressed.

Rates of head injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan are skyrocketing, but many of these injuries are being poorly addressed by the VA, for a variety of reasons. PTSD is also on the rise, and the VA and the Pentagon have a long history of a very problematic attitude towards PTSD and other psychological issues among veterans and members of the military. Untreated injuries sometimes have a strange way of manifesting themselves, and that way can include intimate partner violence or social aggression.

My area of study in college was primarily 20th century war, and the psychological and anthropological motivations behind warfare: what makes us warlike, how war has evolved, and why genocide became a recurrent problem in the 20th century. I also studied American military culture, and one of the things I was most interested in was the transition from the military to civilian society. (Surprised to learn this? I guess I don’t talk about my college studies very much here.)

Being in the military changes people. Being in war, especially, changes people. And the United States does not do a good job of integrating servicemembers back into society. I think that there are a lot of reasons behind this, ranging from the lack of mandatory national service, which makes it difficult for most civilians to emphasize with returning servicemembers, to policies which are designed to hide some of the uglier aspects of military service.

Nowhere has the government slacked more than on the identification of veterans who are troubled, and do need help. In some cases, this is because these veterans have moved beyond the help of the government. They have dropped off the radar, disappeared, chosen to actively evade treatment for a variety of reasons. In other cases, they are clearly disturbed and clearly reaching out for help, and that help is not available.

I think that we need to reevaluate the way in which we deal with these issues, because whatever we are doing right now is not working. This murder-suicide was preventable. There was ample evidence that this young man was having a difficult time and was experiencing profound psychological unrest, but he didn’t get help. Because he was in a small town, and no one was quite sure what to do with him? Because he resisted treatment? Because no one in a position to do something wanted to recognize what was going on, due to deeply-entrenched attitudes about warriors? The reasons are not really clear, but there’s certainly no reason anyone had to die. As one military wife put it, “…as a military wife, I can assure you that not one of us took an oath at the altar saying that we were willing to die for our country at the hands of our husbands. (Source)”

I predicted that there would be a great deal of angry fallout over this, and I may be wrong. It seems like the ranks of small town life have closed, probably because no one wants to examine this disturbing chapter in our history too closely for fear of encountering their own culpability. As my friend Kremlin pointed out, we always say that we “didn’t expect” murders and suicides and that such things are “uncharacteristic” of the people we knew, because to do otherwise is to admit that we might have been able to do something.

I think that the biggest lesson to take away from this is that we do need to be doing something. We are all culpable for failing to do something. Many people were aware of the warning signs and failed to act. Many people see the warning signs in other people across this country every day, and fail to act. And as someone who has been in a very dark place of my own, though a very different one, I can say that sometimes it takes only a small action from the right person at the right time to make a change. We need to stop talking about returning servicemembers in the abstract and we need to start addressing this issue, because it’s not going to go away. Indeed, as the wars prolong themselves, it’s only going to get worse.

We also, of course, need to be addressing domestic violence, spousal murder, and suicide in the civilian population. I think there’s a fair amount of intersectionality in terms of interventions which could be being made, and aren’t. We owe it to society as a whole to speak up and to extend a helping hand when it’s obviously needed.