American vets return to battlefields at home

Posted November 12, 2018 7:31 a.m. EST

ALBANY, N.Y. _ The mass shooting Thursday in California was a relatively minor news story. The country woke up to the tragedy, shook its head and went on with its day. By nightfall, the cable news networks had moved on.

And why not? Mass shootings don't feel unusual anymore, so the paucity of attention makes a kind of grim sense. Events that happen routinely aren't as newsworthy. They don't shock us. We've seen worse, really.

The attention that was given to the massacre in Thousand Oaks, Calif., tended to focus on the heroism of police Sgt. Ron Helus, who died as he rushed to rescue others, and the fact that the killer _ responsible for 12 deaths in a bar popular with college kids _ is a military veteran who served in Afghanistan. He was a former Marine machine gunner who may have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, though that hasn't been confirmed.

The killer was hardly the first veteran responsible for a mass killing in recent years. There have been eight since 2001, in fact, and it is tempting to assume that military service had something to do with what those men did. We figure they learned how to kill overseas, never recovered from the trauma of the experience, and that led them to kill again when they returned home.

But that's dumb, or at least simplistic. We've always had veterans, but never a problem like this. No, the problem isn't veterans. The problem is the country to which those veterans come home.

As the writer Sebastian Junger has detailed, soldiers at war experience a tribal closeness. They eat together and sleep together. They have a common mission and sense of purpose. They trust and rely on each other.

Then, when their service is over, they come home to a society marked by historically abnormal loneliness and alienation. To a country with sky-high rates of depression, addiction, anxiety and isolation, where neighbors are strangers and strangers aren't to be trusted. To communities where the bonds between people have grown weak and families, generally speaking, are in crisis.

The problem, Junger says, is that vets get an unusual perspective. They see us for who we really are. They know what we're missing, and that helps explains why they struggle _ with PTSD, with depression, with suicide.

"Veterans have gone away and are coming back and seeing their own country with fresh eyes," Junger says in a TED Talk available on YouTube. "And they see what's going on. This is the country they fought for. No wonder they're depressed. No wonder they're scared."

Veterans have special concerns and needs, for sure, but the alienation Junger describes is common among mass shooters, veterans or not. Nearly all are relatively young men, lost victims of a great disconnect _ from nature, place, family, community, spirituality. They know too little of the warmth of connection and humanity but are overly familiar with the meanness of the cold virtual world.

There's a special irony in all this for recent military veterans, though. When they were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, they were given an imperialistic mission that included remaking those distant societies in our image. We spent trillions rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan but neglected the society here at home.

The idea, we were told, was to spread democracy, but I don't know anyone who believes our own democracy is in great shape.

The idea, we were told, was to thwart terrorism, but we have own our terrorists to worry about. What was the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting if not terrorism?

The idea, we were told, was to spread peace. But what peace do we have?

Consider that some of the survivors in Thousand Oaks also lived through the mass shooting that killed 58 men and women in Las Vegas. Try convincing them that they live in anything better than a battlefield.

Consider that 51 people have been shot in Albany in a year, including the 22-year-old shot Friday just blocks from the governor's mansion. That isn't peace.

How about this? How about we worry less about what's happening in the Middle East and more about the decay in our own neighborhoods? How about we stop pretending that we have solutions for the world, when we are so obviously failing to solve our most pressing problems?

And how about we stop creating veterans in wars far from home until we've figured out what's making lost young men turn bars, schools, churches and movie theaters into war zones of their own making?

Contact columnist Chris Churchill at 518-454-5442 or email cchurchill(at)timesunion.com

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