The alleged massacre of 16 Afghan villagers by U.S. Army staff sergeant Robert Bales has occasioned another classic, tortured American effusion of explanation and commentary. Bales' despicable actions have been attributed to traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, the relentless burden of four deployments to war zones in the past decade, financial and marital tensions back home, disappointment over not getting promoted, anger over a friend's getting blown up. All of which are appropriate topics for discussion, and yet careless and premature and profoundly incomplete.
Once again, the 2.4 million young Americans who have served with honor in Iraq and Afghanistan are portrayed as victims and a potential menace, ready to pop at any moment. There has been little acknowledgment that the overwhelming majority of our veterans--even the overwhelming majority of those suffering from posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries--have come home to lead productive and, often, inspiring lives. The unfairness of laying the burden of this stereotype on them, after they assumed the burden of fighting impossible wars for the rest of us, is infuriating. "You don't want to embed in the culture's consciousness the idea that everyone who comes back is somehow damaged," says Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL whose organization, the Mission Continues, gives fellowships to veterans who come up with creative public-service ideas. "What I've seen is that out of that pain can come wisdom. Out of that stress can come resilience."
And so I decided to check in with some of the other veterans I've come to know over the past few years, men and women who are leading exemplary lives back home, to see how they were reacting to the news from Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, almost all of them were infuriated by the spew of stereotypes. "The media have done nobody any favors," said Jake Wood, a former Marine sergeant who co-founded Team Rubicon, a network of combat veterans--many sergeants--who provide disaster relief. "You see headlines like SERGEANT PSYCHO, and what can you say?"
The veterans were naturally curious about the precise details of what happened on the morning of March 11 in Panjwai district. They talked about how unusual it was for a lone trooper to go "outside the wire" at a combat outpost and how, sometimes, troops became obsessed with individual families. "There's so much we don't know about this," said John Gallina, a former specialist who suffered a traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder after his humvee was blown up in Iraq and who went on to co-found Purple Heart Homes, which builds housing for disabled veterans.