A soldier goes on a rampage and kills 16 Afghan civilians, causing outrage and anger among the Afghani people. How would we like it if a foreign soldier killed innocent Americans? Shocked, we are quick to point out that the entire military can’t be judged by looking at a ‘bad apple,’ and that Bales doesn’t reflect the attitude of most American soldiers.
True. Bales is 38, the father of two (ages 3 and 4), and on his fourth tour of duty, two of them in Iraq. His family said he was not a mean, aggressive or angry man. He hadn’t wanted to go to Afghanistan this time; the constant tours interrupted his life. Apparently he was in a strong marriage that showed tension due to his absences. He was injured more than once, one concussion that could have possibly caused brain damage. The day before the rampage, he saw the leg blown off a friend of his. Before the rampage, he had been drinking heavily.
This makes me immensely sad for both him and his family. I write that without meaning to show any insensitivity to the Afghan victims; their deaths are tragic. Families have been torn asunder by these killings – children had their lives cut short, the pain to those remaining is immense.
However, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is extremely common amongst soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we in Farmington learned last year when a local man apparently confronted police with a desire to be killed. When soldiers are sent back over and over, facing immense pressure and hardship, even a strong, ethical person can crack. Add alcohol, perhaps a brain injurty (and PTSD is itself a kind of brain injury), and a man who could have had a life as a successful family man with a career in the military faces a very uncertain future. He probably will only know his children indirectly as they grow. Although he must accept responsibility for his actions, his mental health was a victim of war, stress and government policy. Think of all those who suffer and don’t get and often don’t seek help.
On Wednesday in the nearby town of Jay, Frank Smith took a man hostage at the Verso paper mill, holding him most of the day. He released the hostage at about 3:30 and gave himself up a couple hours later. I stopped at the Hannaford grocery store in Jay that day and saw about 20 logging trucks parked in the parking lot as they couldn’t make their deliveries to the locked down mill.
I don’t know the details of Frank Smith’s case. Comments left by readers in the article I just linked give a clue. Despite working there almost 25 years he was apparently fired for a minor infraction, spraying a co-worker who had sprayed him with a hose. Moreover, there are a few comments that the mill treats employees like disposable tools — after all, with high unemployment, there is an excess of people wanting to work.
If so, that’s appalling. You don’t fire a 50 year old in this economy — especially not in central Maine — unless you have to. To look at this as hard discipline would be perverse. Discipline him, but recognize that firing a man in his position is may destroy his finances and cause severe disruption to his life. Now, most fifty somethings who lose their jobs can handle it, just like most in the military can handle PTSD without going on a killing spree or wanting death. But if you have the right mix of circumstances, such things can cause a downward spiral. And don’t forget – it only takes a moment of bad decision making to change life completely. You can do good things for years and one mistake can destroy all that.
The last case is that of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who was detained by police because of strange behavior, charges of public masturbation and vandalism. However, the police did not arrest him, they decided that what he needed was medical care and sent him to the hospital. The Invisible Children network put out this statement:
“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”
In this case it’s clear that a man’s passion and effort to help the victims of children and war will find his personal reputation and even his cause harmed by an incident that seems out of place with who he is. While some conspiracy theorists have suggested powerful people wanted to destroy him, it’s likely given the statements that he had a mental health issue (from the description it could be bipolar disorder).
Are these three men victims too? Victim is perhaps the wrong word. They are symptoms of something wrong in our culture, a kind of human expression of the danger of pushing people to the edge in a society that has become so individualistic that people are left to fend for themselves emotionally. When mental health is the issue — as it is in all three of these cases, apparently — we don’t forgive or understand, at least not in society at large. .
But whether it’s the soldier pushed over the edge, the fired worker whose life now seems hopeless, or the activist whose mental illness threatens to derail his work and reputation, I can’t help but think that all of us could end up in a similar place given the wrong circumstances. As a society we need to learn to be more understanding and less judgmental.