Three weeks have passed since Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales was arrested for allegedly killing 17 civilians in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Many more weeks will pass before military authorities confirm details about what caused the attack.Speculation is that Bales could have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, but according to ABC News, “there’s no evidence to indicate that people afflicted with the condition are more likely than anyone else to commit crimes and acts of mass violence. They are more inclined, instead, to turn their aggression on themselves and their families to devastating effect, research shows.”
Forensic psychiatry is a vast, complex world full of unanswered questions. And even if PTSD becomes a part of the Bales defense, it’s uncertain if it could become a factor in any punishment.
Beyond the vexing variables, though, are two certainties: PTSD is real, and Patty Murray will not abandon her aggressive approach to holding military leaders accountable for properly diagnosing and treating the disorder. As chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and senior member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, the Democrat from Washington has the clout that’s needed to push military leaders toward meaningful action. And she’s not timid about deploying that clout.
Murray demonstrated that dogged determination 10 days after the attack in Afghanistan. On March 21, Murray sternly challenged Army Secretary John McHugh about recent troubling news out of the Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. JBLM “in my home state is facing some very real questions on the way they have diagnosed PTSD and the invisible wounds of war,” she told McHugh. Then she cited a Seattle Times report that, since 2007, “40 percent of those service members who walked in the door with a PTSD diagnosis had their diagnosis changed to something else or overturned entirely.”
Clearly, Murray was unleashing the power she’s acquired from many years of fighting for veterans benefits. She reminded McHugh that the effect of what happened at JBLM is that “many who were already being treated for PTSD -- and were due the benefits and care that comes with that diagnosis -- had it taken away by this unit. And that they were then sent back into the force or the local community.” Then there are the residual effects: “Not only is it damaging for these soldiers, but it also furthers the stigma for others that are deciding whether to seek help for behavioral health problems.”
McHugh offered a less-than-compelling explanation, that “we don’t see any evidence of this being systemic” and that, basically, the Army is looking into the problem. How vigorously, though, would that inquiry be if Murray were not, figuratively, jumping up and down on the military desks and, literally, demanding answers about treatment of America’s wounded warriors?
There is so much Americans don’t understand about war and its psychological impact on those who wage it. But ABC News cited statistics from the Veterans Administration, that about 20-30 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, and nearly 100,000 veterans received treatment for PTSD in 2011 alone.
We trust Murray will remain steadfast in her vigilance. Meanwhile, Americans must continue to support every effort to understand the psychological wounds of war, and make sure all affected soldiers receive the help they need and have earned.