Is Military Service a Factor in Turning People into Mass Shooters?

Devin Patrick Kelley, who had received a bad conduct discharge from the Air Force and spent a year in a military prison for assaulting his wife and stepson, killed 26 and injured 20 in a shootout at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The most recent mass shooting in America, in which Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire on First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas — killing 26 and wounding 20 — once again focuses attention on the seemingly intractable problem of gun massacres.

Kelley, who was court-martialed by the Air Force in 2012 after committing domestic assault on his wife and stepson, spent one year in a military brig and in 2014 received a bad conduct discharge. Although Kelley was ineligible to purchase firearms due to his convictions, the Air Force failed to report this to the FBI. As a result, Kelley’s name did not appear in the federal government’s database, allowing him to purchase an assault rifle and commit mass murder. Kelley’s armed forces background raises issues regarding the role of military training in mass shootings, and whether that tactical experience allows them to become more effective shooters. The stress associated with deployments also raises questions about the possible links between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mass shootings for these men when they return home from military service.

Veterans are 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet account for over a third of the perpetrators of mass shootings, suggesting that military service may be a risk factor for mass killings. Veterans also have a 50 percent higher rate of suicide than the general population.

Studies from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics suggest military veterans are not more prone to violence than Americans in general, as vets have a lower incarceration rate than others, though they are sentenced for violent offenses at a greater rate. However, a small segment of vets with mental or emotional issues aside from PTSD may be triggered into acts of violence because of their combat experience.

“There are some people — a very tiny, tiny percentage — whose combat experience creates some mental instability, along with other factors like drugs and alcohol, that then may contribute to lethal violence stateside,” Shoba Sreenivasan, a University of Southern California psychology professor, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The links between military experience and mass violence are nothing new. For example, the Ku Klux Klan — America’s original domestic terror group — was founded by Confederate veterans. The Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder and first grand wizard of the Klan, was responsible for the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee in April 1864, the massacre of over 300 Black Union soldiers after they had already surrendered. In the years following the Civil War, a time of dramatic levels of violence, two-thirds of men sent to prison in the North were veterans.

Although many mass shooters are not veterans, the fact remains that those who have served in the military disproportionately commit these acts. The list of veterans who became mass killers is an “impressively long” one, notes George Washington University anthropology and international affairs professor Hugh Gusterson in Sapiens in 2016. Some of these individuals include Timothy McVeigh, Persian Gulf War veteran and perpetrator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, and Wade Michael Page, the white supremacist who was radicalized on a North Carolina Army base, and who killed six people at a Wisconsin Sikh temple. In 2009, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. Army psychiatrist, killed 13 during a shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas, military-trained Micah Xavier Johnson — an outgoing person who became a hermit after serving as a corporal in Afghanistan, and was reportedly disappointed with the military following his discharge — killed six police officers by sniper fire in Dallas in 2016.

A 2015 report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) estimates that 300 veterans are currently on death ro or 10 percent of all death row inmates. More than 1 million veterans of the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the Middle East have returned with PTSD symptoms, and while most veterans live exemplary lives, the report notes, “for a small but significant number, their mental wounds contributed to their committing acts of violence and they are now on death row. Many others with similar problems have already been executed.” While many death row veterans suffer from PTSD or other mental disabilities exacerbated or caused by combat duty, often when these vets stood trial and faced a death sentence, “their military service and related illnesses were barely presented to the jury.” DPIC found it disturbing that so many emotionally and mentally scarred veterans with war-related trauma face execution.

A 2014 Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation survey of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that one-third said their mental health was worse than it was before they served, with nearly a half saying the same of their physical health. Nearly half reported sudden outbursts of anger, and only 12 percent said they were mentally and physically better now than before active duty. As Ann Jones wrote in The Nation, an increasing number of veterans are returning home “stuck in combat mode,” as if they were in “enemy territory” or on a private mission, and had gotten into the habit of killing and had become skilled at it.

“Since 2002, soldiers and veterans have been committing murder individually and in groups, killing wives, girlfriends, children, fellow soldiers, friends, acquaintances, complete strangers, and — in appalling numbers — themselves,” Jones said. One poignant example she cited were the first Afghanistan veterans who returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2002. Soon after, four of the vets murdered their wives and took their own lives. By 2005, the military base had experienced ten domestic violence fatalities, while soldiers in western Washington state committed seven murders and three suicides. Between December 2007 and September 2008, male soldiers at Fort Bragg and the neighboring Camp Lejeune Marine base murdered four military women, while 15 deaths of women killed under suspicious circumstances overseas in combat zones had been categorized as “suicide” or “non-combat related.”

A 2008 investigation by the New York Times found “more than 150 cases of fatal domestic violence or child abuse in the United States involving service members and new veterans during the wartime period that began in October 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan.”

The PTSD which impacts veterans who have been to war manifests itself in violence, as the metal detector and armed police officer in every VA Hospital suggests. As Slate reported, wars and elevated crime rates are closely related, as if the wartime license to kill lowers the bar in civilian life, and makes murder an acceptable means of settling everyday conflicts. Writing for Slate, David J Morris, a veteran who has struggled with PTSD, said that the notion PTSD has nothing to do with violence back at home is part of a “support the troops” campaign by VA psychiatrists and veterans advocates who claim that associating PTSD with mass shootings does veterans a disservice. However, Morris points to the Army’s 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry unit (2-12), which was based in Dora, one of the deadliest neighborhoods in Baghdad, Iraq. When they returned to Fort Carson, Colorado, the unit became associated with a crime spree, with a doubling of the murder rate around the base, and a tripling of rapes, and eleven murders — with two soldiers killed and three charged with murder. The PTSD rate for the 2-12 unit was more than three times greater than that of a comparable unit that had served in a less violent area of Iraq.

Describing the phenomenon of violence among military veterans as “warrior killings,” Morris said these men fit into a pattern of “rambunctious” underachievers in school who join the military and find trouble with their superior officers. They go off to war and are exposed to high levels of violence, then return home and develop a drug habit, in part to cope with the trauma of war. The result is a series of violent incidents and financial troubles, then, high, drunk and out of control, an altercation with another soldier that leads to a death.

“It is impossible to say for sure what drove these young men to commit murder, but the idea that combat exposure and post-traumatic stress could be contributing factors makes sense if you look at war for what it is at the grunt level: murder that has been sanctioned by the government,” Morris wrote. “The simple fact is that war poisons some men’s souls, and we aren’t doing our veterans any favors by pretending that war is only about honor and service and sacrifice and by insisting that PTSD is completely unrelated to the problem of postwar violence. It’s not only morally irresponsible, it’s scientifically inaccurate,” he added.

America has a toxic mix of guns and anger, with a risk for impulsive gun-related violence increasing when anger, depression or substance abuse is added to the equation, as the Dallas Morning news reported. Further, as one forensic psychologist noted, there is an “anger mismanagement” problem among violent offenders such as mass killers, “pathological anger, rage, resentment and embitterment.” Cognitive behavior therapy is one means, along with other programs and counseling services to help impulsively angry young people with antisocial behavior manage stress and control their emotional responses, and prevent them from taking up guns. Further, domestic violence is the canary in the coal mine for mass shootings, as 54 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016 involved family or domestic violence. Domestic abuse is a problem in the military, with combat veterans responsible for 21 percent of domestic violence nationwide — linked to PTSD. Yet, the U.S. military is reporting almost no abusers to the FBI gun background check system.  If society has any hope of addressing and combating the issue of mass shootings among military veterans, it must address these underlying issues of war, violence, anger and trauma, and fight them head-on.

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