Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been identified as the soldier who went on a killing rampage in Afghanistan, perhaps dooming the US mission there.

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.

A sad face

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.

Jason Russell, whose work on Invisible Children and Kony 2012 have garnered attention, was detained in San Diego.

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.

  1. #1 by modestypress on March 17, 2012 - 03:39

    Good post, with important points. A little to the side of the issues you raise, but well worth considering, is the likely crisis in mental health treatment, which is probably in the dark ages compared to somatic health treatment. I refer you to the well-researched and documented books MAD IN AMERICA and ANATOMY OF AN EPIDEMIC, which might inspire you stay as far away from psychiatrists as you can (though you seem sane enough to my inexpert eye).

  2. #2 by lbwoodgate on March 17, 2012 - 03:40

    It’s easier to write people off that show any sign of abnormality than extend a caring hand to help them work through their problems. There are people and organizations who do offer this kind of mental health service but with recent budget cuts, such services are being eliminated.

    When there are not enough people available to address this serious issue only those who have the financial means to seek out expensive private care get the help they need, provided they are willing to seek out that help.

    Very good piece Scott

  3. #3 by Black Flag® on March 17, 2012 - 16:32

    The inevitable conclusion to the welfare state is what is merely an error becomes a crime.

    As the institutions become like government and more bureaucratical, their apparent callousness plus absurdity expands throughout society – where a GI-Joe toy is banned from an airplane because of zero tolerance on guns and look-alike-guns, including guns that are 1/2 inch in length.

    There is no administrative rule, consistently applied, that will not avoid becoming utterly absurd.

    Until welfare state collapse, and self-responsibility returns, these situations will only get worse.

  4. #4 by Ruth Crowley on March 20, 2012 - 20:41

    As Justin Crowley-Smilek’s mother I can tell you that Justin did not go to the police station with a “desire to be killed”. That was one woman’s opinion that the newspapers ran with to sell lots and lots of papers. I have no idea why she told that story as she has had nothing to do with helping veterans since his death. As you probably know the state of Maine has recently enacted a veterans court to help those veterans coming home with ptsd and find themselves in the legal system due to their illness.
    Justin was demonized by the press as he struggled with his PTSD and was trying to get his life together. They portrayed his as a maniac running the streets of Farmington and that all should bolt their doors for he may break down their doors with that machete that he used to cut up his dog’s food. Justin was a kind man with a heart as big as life who came home from war a changed person.
    Thank you for writing that Justin apparently confronted a police officer. All the papers seem to enjoy writing that he “attacked” a police officer. Mr smilek and I have asked them to please don’t forget the word allegedly.
    I am beyond troubled by the soldier that is accused of killing the afghanistan civilians. He had been injured on previous tours and sent one more time despite of this. He was at war and war changes those who do the killing.
    Thank you for your post. I agree, as a society we need to be so much more judgmental.
    As my dear mother used to say to me on many occasion “there for the grace of God go you or I.”

    • #5 by Scott Erb on March 27, 2012 - 01:15

      Ruth, I didn’t realize your comment was sitting in the ‘pending’ section and wasn’t available until I approved it – sorry for the delay..

      Sorry for your loss; as a society we really do owe our veterans the best in care, understanding and assistance when they return from conditions I don’t pretend to be able to truly understand. Demonizing people struggling with such problems is perverse, but happens too often. Thanks for commenting, and I am certain that your son was a good man.

  5. #6 by Ruth Crowley on March 20, 2012 - 22:02

    Whoops slip there. we need to be so much LESS judgemental.

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