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Diane Dimond: The Myth of Veterans and Crime

As we mark Veterans Day 2017, let’s do more than just thank military members for their service. Let’s all do our part to erase some of the persistent myths about our returning veterans.

First, military training and exposure to combat do not create the wacko battle-scarred solider so often depicted by Hollywood, nor does it translate into criminal behavior. The idea that returning war veterans are prone to or programmed to commit violent crime is a fairytale. It just isn’t so.

The results of several different studies and information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics gathered over the last several decades clearly show no evidence that veterans are more likely to commit crimes than civilians. In fact, since the Vietnam War, there has been a steep drop in veterans held in state and federal jails and prisons.

The government started keeping track of veterans-turned-inmates in 1978, following worry about alienated Vietnam vets. Back then, military veterans made up about 24 percent of the general prison population. As of 2012, that number was down to 8 percent. And of those imprisoned today, only about a third ever saw combat.

Experts in this field credit the decline in part to increased services for veterans as they settle back home and try to get on with their lives.

Additionally, most states now have separate veterans courts that are often staffed with understanding former military personnel. Veterans who have committed certain crimes can be steered into specialized treatment instead of entering the penal system.

Myth No. 2 is that many civilians believe military members regularly come home from combat zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and other far-flung locations suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only a small percentage of service members leave the military suffering from the debilitating aftereffects of trauma.

Nonetheless, the PTSD factor is a frequent part of today’s media milieu. In television dramas and movies, PTSD and troubled veterans are a regular offering.

And, after the rare real-life event of a veteran being involved in a major crime or mass shooting, TV news programs invariably jump to assume a PTSD connection.

Example: Following the recent massacre at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that resulted in more than two dozen deaths and another 20 wounded, early news reports played up the gunman’s military connection.

The truth is that 26-year-old suspected shooter Devin Patrick Kelley had turned sullen, unstable and menacing long ago, according to those who knew him. In 2012, he pleaded guilty to serious physical violence against his then-wife and infant stepson. He was put into a mental facility but escaped and began threatening his superior officers.

His unstable actions led to a yearlong military confinement and, ultimately, a bad-conduct discharge from the Air Force in 2014.

As far as I can determine, Kelley was never in combat, having served his time in logistics readiness at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, N.M., and he was never diagnosed with PTSD. Perhaps the military could do a better job of prescreening those they accept, but that’s a topic for a separate column.

“We know that most Americans view veterans in one of two ways: either as heroic or as broken,” said Bill Rausch, executive director of the national veterans organization Got Your 6.

“And we know for a fact ... that most of us are neither broken nor heroic. We’re just like everyone else.”

Rausch is a West Point graduate and former Army major whose service spanned 10 years, including a stint in Iraq. Among other pro-veteran missions, he now works with the entertainment industry to try to change the stereotypical portrayal of veterans in films and on TV.

Vets are not the damaged characters so often depicted, Rausch says. Instead, they should be seen as the trained leaders and team builders the military molded them to be, as true assets of the communities in which they settle.

With hundreds of thousands of veterans leaving the military every year, Got Your 6 believes working with Hollywood to get the veteran story right is an important first step toward getting localities to realize the assets coming their way.

“Think about the declining community in this country,” Rausch said. “Fewer people are voting. Fewer people are volunteering. Fewer people are helping their neighbors.

“And so there’s an opportunity to tap into these veterans, welcome them in your community, because they will strengthen your community at the end of the day.”

If you remember only one point from this column, make it this one: Statistics show that military veterans are less likely to be involved in crime than civilians. They are, for the most part, simply not the brooding, explosive, temperamental characters major movie stars like to portray.

Chances are extremely high that the man or woman who wore a uniform and served this country — on your behalf — did so honorably and now lives their life lawfully. I think it’s our duty to support them in every way possible, not just on Veterans Day but every day.

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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