Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Welcome, Veteran Poster Boy: Aaron Alexis

I should be polishing the essay I turn in to my workshop class tomorrow, or starting the research paper due next month, or chipping away at that looming thesis project. But sometimes there’s something that needs to be written before anything else can be. Today, that something revolves around Monday’s shooting at the Washington, DC Navy Yard

It’s been a violent week. Last weekend, three separate shootings rocked my home city of Boston. The Navy Yard incident, though farther from home, hit me hardest. Not because of the scale—though how can you not balk at the gruesome facts: at least 12 killed and eight injured in the “single worst loss of life in the District” since a Boeing 737 crashed into the Potomac River in 1982, killing 78 people.

No, the Navy Yard shooting hit me hardest because the shooter was a veteran

Aaron Alexis, the new veteran
Poster Boy
UNCREDITED/AP
That makes it personal. That adds Aaron Alexis to a list of high-profile poster boys who represent what the public knows to be a veteran. He’s in the company of Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who recently pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan villagers in March 2012; Iraq veteran Benjamin Colton Barnes, who shot and killed a park ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park almost exactly a year ago; and Army veteran Wade Michael Page, who fatally shot six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August 2012.

Of course, any shooting death is tragic. But a perpetrator with military connections makes it doubly tragic for the veteran community. Cue the ripple effects of reinforced stereotypes.

Additionally, this situation is hard for me because I know that as a veteran, Alexis had access to a support network.

The military and VA certainly don’t lack for negative press, especially in light of shocking statistics like in 2012, the number of military suicides was higher than the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Still, the military community comes with an inherent support network that includes not only official mental healthcare channels, but also chaplains, family support centers, supervisors who are trained and charged with their soldiers’ well-being, and, of course, peers who have “been there, done that.” So many resources—if Alexis had reached out to one, could this tragedy have been prevented?

And is it really that simple? Of course not.

Seeking help requires a degree of self-awareness and an emotional vulnerability that goes against military culture and training.

The military thrives on an ethos of hyper-masculinity. In war, you can’t afford to be emotional. I am by nature one of the most emotional people I know (I still have to fast-forward through Mufasa’s death scene), but in Afghanistan, out of necessity (and somewhat unwittingly), I built barriers around my emotions. It was a defense mechanism that enabled me to do my job—one which keeps war-fighters focused and alive.

But emotional dullness doesn’t translate back to “real life.” I recognized that on some level—that’s what spurred me through the doors of my base’s Mental Health Clinic when everything in me wanted to turn around. My military mentality told me I was weak. A failure.

In hindsight, I realize that incredibly difficult, controversial decision was one of the most important choices I’ve ever made. But can a veteran be faulted for not making it? Is there an element of institutional failure as well?

Right now, the details of Alexis’ military career are sketchy. There's no information on whether he deployed. Reports say that during his service as a Navy reservist he had a “pattern of misconduct” but ultimately received an honorable discharge. The New York Times also reports that Alexis “exhibited signs of mental illness” for many years. 

Surely, there were people who interacted with Alexis and noticed red flags. Surely some such interactions occurred during his time in the service.

In response to the shocking suicide rates, the military has become, in theory, hyper-aware of mental health issues. One of my annual Air Force training requirements was a lengthy Suicide Prevention presentation that was so cheesy and mind-numbing that we all joked it made us want to commit suicide. Each unit took “training days” to discuss our individual and group concerns. We filled out questionnaires about our mental health. We were given flyers with a hotline number.


Mental health was a hot topic for discussion, but too easily clashed with the aforementioned culture in practice. A change in culture starts at the top, and takes more than handouts and PowerPoint. And ultimately, each person is responsible for his or her own sphere of influence. How many paths did Alexis cross where he could have been turned? How many people were too busy, too distracted, too disinterested, too self-absorbed, too scared, too lenient to act?

As a 2nd Lieutenant, my second year in the Air Force, I got a call in the middle of the night that one of my Airmen had been put on suicide watch. The Airman was someone I directly supervised, someone I interacted with on a daily basis, someone I was responsible for. I had failed. It can be so easy—and so terribly costly—to fail.

I could never justify or rationalize the killing of innocent people. I’m not making excuses for Alexis’ actions. I imagine there are a million factors that combine to make a person commit a violent act. And I imagine that no matter how strict our gun laws or how strong a person’s support network, if someone is dead-set on committing violence, he or she will find a way to do so.

I can only hope that in the wake of this tragedy, we can all take stock of our potential for failure—as individuals, as institutions, as a society—and be hyper-aware in practice of prevention.

19 comments:

  1. Just wondering if we need to tighten up on the definition of 'veteran'? I always thought that a veteran was distinguished from a (former) serviceman by virtue of operational service, typically to an offshore campaign theatre. As I understand it, Alexis was a reservist, possibly a former reservist, who had not been deployed and so I think it is difficult to place him in the same bracket (with the implied exposure to the same pressures and stresses) as the servicemen mentioned above. Just a thought...

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  2. This is the most pathetic blog I have ever seen. Your article about your quote unquote stress while deployed is even more laughable. STFU really.

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  3. A Veteran is any Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman, that has served in the US Military, whether Active Duty, National Guard, or Reserve. Being Deployed overseas has nothing to do with it. Neither does type of discharge.
    Maybe things are different in the USAF, I am medically retired Soldier(E-6), Combat Medic with 3 tours in Iraq with 3rd ID(M) in a Tank Battalion and the leadership in my Medical Platoon, even with all the "training" didn't care about my issues and it was the same in most of the Companies in the my Bn. It took a serious psychotic break in order for me to get treatment and even then I was seen as trying to "get over" and puss out of deploying. So, yes he had access however that for the most part doesn't mean a hill of beans. Maybe you trying to deal with the VA is different in Mass. and CAD as a mild form of PTSD will only get you a minor rating with the VA. Try dealing with some major issues. My friend was hit by an IED, it blew his right leg to pieces. He finally had to have it amputated BTK and then the VA told him in an official letter that his leg would grow back so he didn't deserve 100%.

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  4. michael mumford sgt us army infantruOctober 6, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    You don't deserve to have ever put on the uniform or call yourself a veteran. We are ashamed of people like you. Your article in the "Daily Caller" proves that. You have no idea what combat is like.

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  5. I just read your article at

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2443741/Female-officer-service-Afghanistan-took-emotional-toll.html

    Please tell me this was a joke? There is no way an LT with only one 9 month deployment to Afghan got PTSD from "waiting for something to happen"?? If this was true you are a disgrace to women, your country, the military and especially the Air Force. If anyone ever deserved to be investigated for their "claims" to their benefits it is you. People like you clog the system and block the path for REAL wounded warriors both mentally and physically. You are the equivalent of a slick sleeve Airman going to the hospital for a papercut to get out of PT. I'm a SSgt, USAF serving 7 years proud with numerous deployments and overseas PCSs. So you were uncomfortable for 9 months.. Awwwww. Try not only being weighed down with all the armor and ammo but also wearing a gas mask in Korea for 36hrs, just drinking water without even the luxury of an MRE or "dry meat and soggy vegetables". All because Kim Jong decided to shell an island and we were anticipating war. Glad you were able to make it through that 9 month hell so you could get back to your high heels and karaoke desert queen!

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    1. Read about what PRTs do. Unless you are a JTAC or EOD, you will find that her deployment was much different than yours.

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  6. Yeah, this is pretty pathetic. I've served with some pretty crappy female soldiers before, but you make them look, well... tough. Enjoy the publicity though, ma'am. 9 months is tough - you deserve the attention

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  7. I wrote a blog while I was deployed in Afghanistan earlier this year and I often made jokes about how easy the Air Force on base had it. If I was ever hating life out there I would always remind myself that there are plenty of others that had it worse. I worked out in the elements on planes for 13 hours a day and ate my cold meals out of big green tubs and still felt fortunate. Please try contacting thedailymail and asking them to take that article about you down. It's an embaressment to military women everywhere and the entire Air Force.

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    1. I agree. The Daily Mail is a tabloid with a track record of debasing women. I was probably more surprised than anyone when I saw their "article." I contacted them, but I haven't heard back and honestly don't expect to.

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  8. You want prevention? Don't send the GI's into snake-handcuffing adventures, especially over and over again. BUT--the gov't never learns and as long as you have an out-of-control Military-Industrial-Congressional-Complex waxing rich, you GI's will continue to be wasted and more enemies will be exponentially created. These wars in the MidEast and South Asia are a total waste--a waste of bodies minds and lives ALL AROUND THE BOARD. That's why I don"t say "thank you for your service", rather I say "I'm sorry". I'm sorry that those chickenhawk scumbags in DC sent you all over there anyway. I don't minimize your pain---war screws people up in different ways. God damn the warmongers.

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    1. ....and don't even think about the billions of dollars wasted in stupid wars from Korea on. The country is nearly bankrupt and the gov't still acts like the Redcoats. You're gonna see ALL degrees of PTSD and the Pandora's Box-effects down the road. I don't despise YOU, Lauren, I despise the sons of- and bitches who sent you all to that and other hellholes. It was needless, based on lies......

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  9. Leave it to a whiny Air Force POG to make the news complaing about the food at the defac. You're an embarrassment to the uniform.

    And your blog background makes me despise you even more.

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  10. Limited internet and phone service added to her feelings of vulnerability as did the fact she was a woman in predominantly a man's world.
    The the pretty brunette said that sexual assault a constant worry for her on the front line, because she ‘knew the stories’ and ‘overheard vulgar talk.’

    You should be absolutely ashamed of yourself. This article is a slap in the face. I truly cannot believe that you would collect for PTSD. You're a fraud. Absolutely disgraceful and dishonorable.

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  11. I too read the article at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2443741/Female-officer-service-Afghanistan-took-emotional-toll.html

    One 9 month tour? As a Fobbit? Cry me a river lady. People like you are why PTSD has trouble getting the treatment and exposure that it does. You insult people who actually experienced war.

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  12. What a whiny, attention-seeking dirtbag. I have more time on a porta-john in theater than your one 'deployment'. Suck it up, crybaby.

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  13. Read you article about time in Afghanland. Different folks have different responses but seriously you are a joke. I know contractors who served in more difficult positions than you and came home without wanking about it. Try doing your job while being mortared every freaking night sleeping under your cot with your helmet and vest on. Try being shot at by a real enemy and see what stress you feel. This is a joke blog and you are a joke to all those who really saw combat.

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  14. First off, Lauren, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE.

    And to all of you ANONYMOUS commenters: I would thank you as well, if you weren't ANONYMOUS. It takes a lot of courage to talk about what you experienced as a woman in the service. And the threat of rape for women in the service IS VERY REAL, even when not on deployment. I would know, because I was a woman in the service, and I'm not at all surprised by your ANONYMOUS hateful comments. It is neither BRAVE nor HONORABLE of you ANONYMOUS COMMENTERS to come out and attack another service member, a veteran, who risked her life for this country, ESPECIALLY from behind the veil of your ANONYMITY. Shame on you. And I daresay, it is all of YOU (not Lauren) who disgrace the uniform.

    If you had taken the time to read the byline in the Daily Mail article, you would've seen that IT WAS NOT WRITTEN BY LAUREN, but by another writer named SADIE WHITELOCKS. Whatever was conveyed in this article that so many of you had a reaction to, it was not conveyed by Lauren Kay Halloran, but by ANOTHER WRITER! Maybe you should read more closely. But I suspect that your anger is not at Lauren or even at the Daily Mail article. Maybe you should look inward and examine the source of this anger and hostility.

    Thank you for your service.

    Jaquira Diaz (not anon.)

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  15. I read the article in The Daily Mail. Afterwards, I decided to check out your blog. I'm not going to talk to you the way a few others here have chosen to, but I do want to convey some of my opinions. First off, Aaron Alexis is by no means any kind of veteran "poster boy". Aaron Alexis said that he suffered from PTSD due to events from 9/11. Trying to make a correlation between his mental illness and the fact that he was once a Navy reservist is just wrong. He was a reservist, never deployed, never entered into a combat situation. His brief military service has absolutely nothing to do with his actions in Washington, D.C. Next I want to say this, I don't know how much truth is in the article...but if your worst experiences in Afghanistan are crappy internet and soggy vegetables then you should really be ashamed of yourself for even talking about and/or having a blog about trauma and adjustment to civilian life. To even mention those things are a total slap in the face to many of us who were actually out searching for and fighting the taliban in Afghanistan and insurgents in Iraq. Real combat is dirty. Its nasty, filthy, and disgusting. When combat is discussed, things like smoke breaks, internet, phones, and dry meat shouldn't even be in the same conversation. They are irrelevant. It seems to me that people such as yourself want to be a part of something that you just never will be able to. While I commend you on your service to our country and thank you for it, that alone doesn't give you the right to blanket all veterans with PTSD. The second word there is "traumatic". Just because you were in the military doesn't mean you suffered trauma, and that seems to be what you believe. I served as an infantryman in Afghanistan and Iraq. I saw tons of Air Force personnel. Unless they were a PJ or a combat controller, none of them had to ever put themselves into harm's way. I served in Afghanistan 8 years before you. Some of the things mentioned in that article were not a concern to us believe me. I actually wrote letters, by hand. To light a cigarette in the mountains meant you became a target. We were supplied by helicopters, and ate whatever we had...to include local chickens we killed ourselves and once ashes from an old fire. Yes, ashes. I hadn't eaten in two days and I saw the corner of a piece of bread in a smoldering fire. So I dug it out and ate it, ashes and all. I weighed 147lbs, 252lbs fully loaded. I have seen every way a human being can die, including women, children, and even their dogs. I also know what its like to wear a battle buddie's brains. This is not meant as a "pissing contest"...I just want to point out to you that many of us had a little different experience than simply being angry about what was for dinner. In my opinion, this blog is a bit silly. Its your right to have one, but it kind of makes many of us veterans look like whiny idiots. If you have issues from being separated from the military then by all means, seek the help you need. But I'd refrain from talking about PTSD and other trauma related illnesses if really you haven't experienced any of that yourself. Thanks for your time, and best of luck to you.

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  16. You nay-sayers should check your sources, and your stories, before making such heinous, blatantly incorrect judgement The "article" to which you are referring is a shining example of irresponsible journalism. It is a ripoff of a real article in Glamour that told Lt. Johnson's real story. The "journalist" who penned said "article" never spoke with Lt. Johnson, and the quotes are not hers. If you knew Lt. Johnson, if you knew her real story, you'd know that she is a strong voice for female veterans--all of whom have different, equally relevant experiences--and that her knowledge of different experiences in war, many like the ones you describe, is vast. You'd know that she was in serious, dangerous situations when she was deployed, and that her mental health struggles are as real as anyone else's. You'd know that she is on your side, giving a voice to a mental health crisis facing so many veterans, and exposing the broken system you all must navigate when you get home. Stand by your comrade and stand up for responsible journalism.

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