Senator Walsh, PTSD didn't cause you to plagiarize your lack of character did

Senator Walsh has claimed PTSD caused him to plagiarize his War College Master’s thesis. With this ridiculous, dishonorable utterance, Walsh has once again brought the specter of PTSD and the myth of the dangerous veteran into the news. Once again, the general public is being given not just a wrong but a very damaging idea of what PTSD is and what it is not. Once again, not only truth but those who do genuinely struggle with this issue are victimized.

It is understandable that so many civilians think veterans are ticking PTSD ticking time bombs. It is completely wrong, but it is understandable. That is, if one subscribes to the theory that most people just aren’t very smart. That is not a theory to which I subscribe.

What then explains this state of affairs? Why is it that according to a recent study conducted by the CNAS (Center for a New American Security), a Washington, DC based think tank, more than half of the executives interviewed admitted to believing negative stereotypes about veterans and potential PTSD issues?

Even more disturbing is the fact that these negative views amount to discrimination. It is to many the main reason current veterans face unemployment rates nearly double the national average. Yet the simple fact is that the vast majority of veterans do not have PTSD.

The VA has treated over half of the 1.6 million post-9/11 veterans, with 117,000 diagnoses of PTSD. Extrapolated to the whole, that number rings true as the VA and veteran advocacy groups report combat-related PTSD rates of returning veterans between 12%-22%.

Even that number is misleading as there are vast differences in PTSD experiences. The most common issues those with PTSD report are sleep disturbances, aversion and startle behaviors. In other words, reactions that cause veterans to withdraw, not lash out. Still, the negative stereotype of the angry, violent or volatile veteran persist.

Once we discount the idea that the general public is just not very smart and acknowledge that professional hiring managers and executives at major companies earned their positions based on education and intelligence, we need to look elsewhere for the root cause of these persistent myths.

Our society is heavily influenced by pop culture and Hollywood. But again, it is both inaccurate and unfair to state that the general public believes what they see on the big screen is reality. People are just not that dumb.

The real problem is a news media that has become more concerned with ratings than with content. Once upon a time, we could rely on the nightly news broadcasts and the daily newspapers for the facts, all the facts and nothing but the relevant facts. In the last quarter century the line between journalism – the recitation of facts – and what currently passes for news has blurred to the point invisibility.

Anytime there is a violent crime with a suspect  who had once worn our Nation’s uniform, headlines and lead stories cite the veteran status of the accused. Not every time is a statement made directly attributing veteran status to the crime or criminal behavior, but the word veteran is appended to the suspect’s name. The fact that the service was decades in the past or the suspect was booted out of the military is either ignored or at best, added as a footnote.

I’m still waiting for the day when a headline or story begins, ‘Suspect Jones went on rampage, continuing behavior that got him dishonorably discharged’. That would at least be more honest if the media is going to insist on publicizing the military service. It is as relevant to say ‘Suspect Jones, a parochial school drop out…’. Adding the adjective veteran or in that admittedly sarcastic comparison, parochial school drop out, infers a correlation between the action and that one fact of their life. But, bashing veterans sells.

Nearly every thinking person knows which stories and events are reported and how they are reported is dependent upon the bias of a particular news outlet. If you want to know what liberals think, turn to MSNBC. For the conservative view, switch to Fox. If you want the whole story, watch both and throw a dart at an imaginary point somewhere between the two.

When it comes to drawing correlations between criminal behavior and veterans, both sides of the spectrum are equally guilty of lazy journalism. If the word veteran is anywhere near the headline or focus, checking if the suspect really is a veteran, was dishonorably discharged, ever saw combat or if they ever even left our shores is prudent. Assuming someone saw combat and therefore has PTSD and then linking that erroneous assumption even as speculation in a news report about a violent crime represents the worst of what passes for journalism these days. But again, bashing veterans sells.

Keywords like ‘PTSD’ within any article or report of a violent crime will likely increase views. Media sites generate revenue on the number of hits or clicks, just like every other website. Keeping this in mind, as a consumer of news, is a justified recommendation whenever the word ‘veteran’ appears in a news story.

Media bias is not the only culprit when it comes to portraying vets as angry, dangerous or simply untrustworthy in polite society. Some veterans have used the PTSD specter to justify their less than honorable behavior as well.

Take for example the current case of Montana Senator John Walsh. This is a sitting US Senator, a retired Brigadier General and veteran of Iraq where he earned a Bronze Star and Combat Infantry Badge. When the news broke that he plagiarized his Master’s thesis at the Army Command and General Staff College, he blamed PTSD.

The truth is simply he lied and cheated. His entire political career, and his promotions in the Army and subsequent post as Brigadier General in the Montana National Guard were made possible because of his attaining that Master’s degree, an achievement now under review.

The civilian world, including the news reports on this unfolding story, fail to grasp the significance of the charge of plagiarism and the dishonor in his causative claims of PTSD. Universities everywhere take plagiarism seriously, but such a charge is a criminal, actionable offense in the military under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This is a fact that Senator Walsh, as an officer of the United States military certainly knows and knew at the time.

Online comments and chat rooms have blown up with stories from those who served with and under this then Colonel. The tamest can be described along the lines of, ‘well, that makes sense. It explains and exemplifies his style of command’.

Thanks to John Walsh, questions about a veteran’s honor and honesty can be added to the assumptions and fears about veterans.  According to Walsh, PTSD caused him to be incapable of acknowledging and citing sources for his master’s thesis, to include the conclusion, which was lifted wholesale from other published sources.  The simple truth here is both actions – plagiarizing his thesis and blaming PTSD – are marks of his character. Unsurprisingly this is another common refrain from those who served with and under him.

It is almost comical to think that Walsh has predicated much of his campaign on his service record and veteran status. He has proudly and loudly stated he will help represent veterans in the Senate. Thanks John Walsh, but veterans neither need nor want the kind of help you can offer; there are plenty of media nitwits that have that angle well covered.

One of the most egregious examples is the HuffPo piece relating 194 violent crimes committed by recent veterans as proof that combat veterans are more likely to commit violent crimes. Using the number of veterans treated by the VA, 1.6 million, that represents .0012%. Yet, the headline for the article proclaims a correlation between combat service and violent crime. I’m intentionally not supplying the link to the article as I refuse to give them even one more click.

Let’s contrast this person with another Montana politician. This other is also a veteran but that is where the similarities end.

Ryan Zinke is a retired Navy SEAL Commander of SEAL Team 6 with multiple tours of combat and an untold number of combat missions under his belt. He received two Bronze Stars and holds two master’s degrees, one an MBA from National University and an MS from the University of San Diego. He enjoys the unqualified respect of his former teammates, many of them citing his care and concern for his men over his own well-being. Contrast that with the reputation and facts of John Walsh’s service.

Zinke supporters have joined the nearly unanimous opinion of veterans in publicly condemning Walsh’s claims of PTSD as an excuse for his dishonorable and illegal-according to the UCMJ- behavior. Yet, Zinke has been criticized for politicizing PTSD. In the upside down world of what passes for journalism these days, there is some sort of twisted logic in that criticism.

One guy falsely claims PTSD as an excuse for his actions, further eroding public opinion of veterans; another calls him out, and he is vilified.  Herein lies the answer to where civilians get their misinformation and biases about veterans and PTSD.

To those outside Montana, this may seem a tempest in a teapot. However, as John Walsh is a Democrat up for election (he was appointed to the seat), his loss represents a threat to Democrat control of the Senate. Perhaps this explains why Walsh is getting support.  The issue is about overall control of the Senate and not the character, or lack thereof, of this one person.

Zinke is not running for that seat, he is a candidate for the House of Representatives. But if his character can be sullied, this twisted logic goes, than his and his supporters accusations carry less weight. Since his character really can’t be questioned, all manner of mud-slinging will have to suffice.

The entire debacle, no matter which side public opinion falls on has only one casualty. The general public’s take away has been and will be that veterans with PTSD are not just angry, volatile and potentially dangerous, but also liars and cheats. Even if Walsh comes out and admits PTSD, if he has been actually diagnosed and treated, had nothing to do with his decision to falsely claim other’s work as his own, the damage is done. But, given his track record, he’ll probably claim PTSD made him lie about PTSD causing him to lie.

PTSD Series

Each post in this series will be added to the Post Traumatic Stress page and will be accessible by clicking the button at the top of the post. You can also type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment