Once a soldier, always a veteran. At least as far as the medias concerned.
Whether its a business, profile, or crime story, a persons status as a veteran is always relevant. A person who served in the military isnt just a family member, businessman, or plainclothes member of society. They are a 54-year old veteran in a way that a Barnes & Noble employee is never a 54-year old bookseller.
As the intersection of crime and veterans affairs continues to make headlines, its important to examine how this coverage affects the publics perception of veterans. Obviously, some media consumers might perceive veterans as criminals, but only a small number of veterans have committed crimes. However, it can be hard for civilians who have never served a tour of duty to understand how veterans reintegrate into society, and how their service affects them physically and emotionally. This means a constant stream of veteran-turned-criminal stories can distort the publics view of veterans, and can drive a deeper wedge between the two groups.
This affects veterans reintegration into civilian life. The Pew Research Center reported in October 2011 that 27 percent of veterans found reintegration difficult. This was particularly true for soldiers that were seriously injured or experienced a traumatic event.
Physical injuries occur on a wide spectrum, but one of the most common psychological injuries is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The Department of Veteran Affairs reports more than 170,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD.
In the course of filing stories the media can (unwittingly) stigmatize veterans through their descriptions of PTSD and of a veterans actions. Its important for the public to understand that one negative story about one veteran isnt representative of the entire population of veterans. If the media provides coverage for those types of stories, its important that veterans are shown in a fair light.
This is not to say that the media is obligated to provide consistently positive and biased coverage of veterans affairs. It is merely to say that stories should not jump to identify those who commit crimes as veterans (if they are) unless that persons military career and experience has something to do with the crime committed. Further, the medias description of veterans and soldiers with PTSD should move beyond the idea that those with the disorder are ticking time bombs, or irrational simply because theyve been diagnosed with the disorder.
As journalists, its our job to understand the challenges facing veterans, from the myriad of changes they face as their military careers end, to the medical, specifically psychological, challenges many of them face. Todays veterans face a different post-war landscape than did veterans of previous wars, namely that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have petered out rather than ended abruptly with an armistice or treaty. This means that veterans have gradually returned to society, rather than returning all at once, as a community. Veterans were able to reintegrate together in the past; today they are much more isolated as they re-enter society. Coupled with psychological trauma, isolation can be harmful to veterans trying to move on with their lives.
Therefore, we must understand how veterans are portrayed in media today, and must understand how issues regarding veterans are covered. We must also understand where coverage of veterans affairs is lacking, and from there, make suggestions on how we can improve coverage.
Current media coverage
On April 19, 2012, TV host and psychologist “Dr. Phil” devoted an episode of his show to veterans with PTSD. Called From Heroes to Monsters, the show talked about how veterans and their families dealt with their return home, and with the disorder. Wives (and ex-wives) of PTSD-affected veterans talked about how the disorder destroyed their families, ended marriages, and left victims with nightmares. Commentary throughout the show dubbed the veterans damaged goods that have come home disabled from the turmoil of war.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder. According to the National Library of Medicine, its caused by traumatic events and experiences that threaten death or serious injury. It occurs after natural disasters, assault, domestic abuse, and a host of other events, and veterans can come home from war with it. Its symptoms range from debilitating to stressful and strong reactions, if the sufferer has a flashback. However, it doesnt always manifest in violence, and is more often than not an internal struggle for the sufferer.
The shows original intent was to educate its audience on an unseen injury from war, but lacked nuance, branded the veterans as violent, and caricatured those who suffer from PTSD.
This kind of framing is at the heart of the veteran on a rampage trope. Documentarian and producer of the PBS documentary Street Vets Issac Goeckeritz sees a delicate relationship between media producers and consumers, and sees media sensationalism as a serious problem.
“The media is driven by hits, they are driven by views, they are driven by the people who are on their websites, and how they want the story to be told,” said Goeckeritz. “It comes down to the viewer to recognize that the majority of our veterans are wonderful people, they are enlisting for the right reasons, they have protected our country. And they deserve the respect that all veterans here, now, and in the past have deserved.”
Goeckeritz also expanded more on his view on the attitude producers should have when dealing with sensitive subjects and topics. As a filmmaker, I really feel the responsibility to be ethical to tell the story as it is, Goeckeritz said. And when a subject is willing to talk to me, I need to recognize that and treat that with caution and express their opinion as they want to be expressed.
Granted, Goeckeritz is a filmmaker, not a journalist, and his coverage of veterans affairs will come from an angle in a way that journalists coverage shouldnt. However, journalists can learn from Goeckeritz in that stories should always accurately represent veterans thought as theyre expressed. This doesnt mean that stories about veterans should be advocating and defending veterans opinions; it does mean that veterans deserve truthful and equitable storytelling.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there are more than 22 million veterans living in the U.S.; they account for seven percent of the population. Of that population, eight percent are women.
The 170,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder have resources through the Department of Veterans Affairs, such as the National Center for PTSD. However, the stigma of seeking help can cripple efforts to treat the disorder, and coverage of PTSD in veterans can be inflammatory. This is where the need for improvement is most apparent.
Tension between veterans and civilians
Portraying veterans as troubled, damaged and potentially unstable has damaged the civilian-veteran relationship. For example, civilians no longer feel comfortable around veterans, to the point that establishing care facilities for veterans has been met with significant civilian opposition. VAntage Point, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, reported in March 2012 that San Diego residents opposed a city residential treatment program; they felt unsafe having the facility for the program close to area schools.
The argument between school officials, neighbors, and the Department of Veterans Affairs eventually ended with a vote in the Departments favor at a city council meeting. The program is meant to treat veterans with PTSD and mild traumatic injuries, with rehabilitation and occupational therapy for veterans. The roadblocks it faced show how media consumers can conflate one news story with their conception of all veterans, and how that conception can warp public affairs.
Combat and other military experiences can have repercussions on mental and physical health, and can cause problems among veterans, but the effects vary from case to case, and the majority of veterans reintegrate without significant problems. The idea that the situation is an epidemic is arguably delusional. But the media highlights erratic and violent behavior among veterans because its a juicier lead and draws more attention. Though the number of veteran-criminals covered by the media is large, its a small number relative to the overall population of veterans.
If coverage of mental health disorders as they relate to veterans remains blunt and without nuance, media consumers will stereotype veterans, especially by those who already lack a clear understanding of what it means to live with PTSD.
It is important to expose problems related to violence and crime, but where veterans are concerned, generalizations develop. Veterans have been trained for combat and in the use of force, but they have not been desensitized to violence and coverage should not imply that they have a mindless propensity for murder. And the constant connection brought up about past war services– the recurring description of a person as a veteran, no matter how long ago their tour ended or the bearing it has on their life now, has deterred veterans from openly speaking about their experience, in fear of being stigmatized.
This problem has is more serious regarding post-9/11 veterans due to the increased number of diagnoses of PTSD. With a larger veteran population to deal with, a media with wider reach, and more complex medical disorders and illnesses to cover, the challenges to providing comprehensive and accurate coverage have grown. People with mental disorders can be portrayed as crazy, dangerous and loony for the sake of providing coverage that is easy for the public to understand; this is especially true because much of the public does not have comprehensive knowledge of mental health disorders.
Reintegration in the present climate
Having noted the publics perceptions as covered by the media, its also important to understand what happens to veterans as they reintegrate into society following a tour of duty. At the end of the day, some things do slip through the cracks in the reintegration process; its how veteran-criminal stories came to be.
The process of veteran reintegration is twofold, and depends on a soldiers status following a deployment. If hell remain enlisted, he goes through training that centers on medical in-processing and a psychiatric evaluation.
It was laughable, said Nolan Peterson, a journalism graduate student at the Medill School at Northwestern University, and a veteran. Theres no follow up, he said, which is problematic because the evaluation is fairly casual and not intensive. Once a soldier has finished a tour and gone through the evaluation, youre basically living in civilian society.
Thats a huge mental leap, Peterson said.
On the other hand, if a soldier is leaving the military, theres a separate transition program that focuses on career skillshow to find a job, how to build a resume, how to use the GI bill.
Petersons military career spanned a little over a decade. After graduating from high school he entered the Air Force Academy, and graduated in 2004. He served as an exchange officer from 2004 to 2006, and then entered pilot training. He served in combat from 2008 to 2011, after which he left the Air Force for civilian life.
His reintegration was of the latter variety. Peterson says he and his classmates were taught how to navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the basics of looking for a job. A representative from Mens Warehouse came in to speak to his program to explain how to wear civilian suits. The veterans knew how to wear a dress uniform; business casual, not so much.
Its just a series of classes you go through on just really mundane things, Peterson said. He added that little was done to foster a community among veterans. If you want to reach out to vets, you basically have to go on Google and figure that out on your own, he said.
Thats part of the reason why the transition from military to civilian life can seem abrupt. While serving in the military, servicemen have the support of peers who go through the same situationstraining, combat, and day-to-day military lifethat they deal with, too.
You have a 24/7 support network when youre in the military, Peterson said. Youre able to deal with a lot of those mental health issues without seeing a therapist because of that network of support. However, that changes when soldiers reintegrate to civilian life.
That lack of professional therapy becomes apparent, Peterson said. The lack of a social network once youre in the civilian world kind of brings those problems to bear very quickly.
Peterson thinks his own experience reintegrating was different because he went back to school. Once he finished serving in 2011, he enrolled at Medill. He says its easier to make friends since hes in classes interacting with people; had he entered the workforce immediately after his service, he may have been more isolated.
I think the lingering kind of difficulty is Im 30 and Im going to school, he said. Sometimes theres a little bit of a disconnect between what Ive done and what other people have done. You dont blend in quite as easily.
The lack of community is also compounded by the nature of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. World War I ended on November 11th, 1918, when an armistice ended hostilities between Germany and the Allies. World War II ended once the Japanese surrendered. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have drawn out over considerable time. While the war in Iraq has come to a close, it was a slow and lethargic close; troops trickled home. Afghanistan is set to meet the same choked and halting end.
There isnt a day when it ends, said Peterson. In previous wars, There was a day when the war was over… Veterans all reintegrated at the same time. It felt like you were a part of that. Now, its different.
It seems that we trickle back out into society, he said. Now, soldiers and other members of the armed forces come home company by company, or squadron by squadron. Its harder as an individual to reach out because you feel so alone.
Peterson thinks the situation would be different if there was better-structured community of support for veterans when they arrive home. While veterans from earlier wars still get together at VFW outposts, no one from our generation or my generation uses that, he said. There isnt a resource that exists to bring together disparate private and public efforts to help reintegration, and so veterans are left to sort out the situation on their own. Not having fellow veterans, or supportive families, is where the problems begin.
With the amount of difficulties veterans face with reintegration, the media plays an important role in maintaining a stable relationship between the veterans and the public.
Captain Brian D. Koehr of the U.S. Navy emphasizes the importance of respecting the military and veterans. The military is not running around trying to get into war, said the Captain. Its actually the last thing that the military wants. It causes a lot of damage to infrastructure, to equipment, and to people. The general public needs to be accepting of what the military does. And we need to support them and give them the respect they deserve.
Ultimately, covering war can be difficult because of the conflict of interests between the military and journalists. Where the military sees the media as an extension of its public relations departments, journalists strive to cover conflicts in an unbiased, truthful manner that accurately tells readers whats happening. The same standard of care needs to be applied to coverage of veterans affairs. From frank discussions of PTSD and other mental illnesses, to the stigmas related to reintegration, there is room for improvement among the press corps. This coverage is owed to veterans not because of a patriotic duty to protect and serve their interests, but instead because they deserve the same fair representation just like the rest of the subjects and people we choose to cover.