This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
After an argument about a leave denied, Specialist Ivan Lopez pulled out a .45-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun and began a shooting spree at Fort Hood, America's biggest stateside base, that left three soldiers dead and 16 wounded. When he did so, he also pulled America's fading wars out of the closet. This time, a Fort Hood mass killing, the second in four and a half years, was committed by a man who was neither a religious nor a political "extremist." He seems to have been merely one of America's injured and troubled veterans who now number in the hundreds of thousands.
Some 2.6 million men and women have been dispatched, often repeatedly, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and according to a recent survey of veterans of those wars conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly one-third say that their mental health is worse than it was before they left, and nearly half say the same of their physical condition. Almost half say they give way to sudden outbursts of anger. Only 12 percent of the surveyed veterans claim they are now "better" mentally or physically than they were before they went to war.
The media coverage that followed Lopez's rampage was, of course, 24/7 and there was much discussion of PTSD, the all-purpose (if little understood) label now used to explain just about anything unpleasant that happens to or is caused by current or former military men and women. Amid the barrage of coverage, however, something was missing: evidence that has been in plain sight for years of how the violence of America's distant wars comes back to haunt the "homeland" as the troops return. In that context, Lopez's killings, while on a scale not often matched, are one more marker on a bloody trail of death that leads from Iraq and Afghanistan into the American heartland, to bases and backyards nationwide. It's a story with a body count that should not be ignored.
War Comes Home
During the last 12 years, many veterans who had grown "worse" while at war could be found on and around bases here at home, waiting to be deployed again, and sometimes doing serious damage to themselves and others. The organization Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) has campaigned for years for a soldier's "right to heal" between deployments. Next month it will release its own report on a common practice at Fort Hood of sending damaged and heavily medicated soldiers back to combat zones against both doctors' orders and official base regulations. Such soldiers can't be expected to survive in great shape.
Immediately after the Lopez rampage, President Obama spoke of those soldiers who have served multiple tours in the wars and "need to feel safe" on their home base. But what the president called "that sense of safety... broken once again" at Fort Hood has, in fact, already been shattered again and again on bases and in towns across post-9/11 America—ever since misused, misled, and mistreated soldiers began bringing war home with them.
Since 2002, soldiers and veterans have been committing murder individually and in groups, killing wives, girlfriends, children, fellow soldiers, friends, acquaintances, complete strangers, and—in appalling numbers—themselves. Most of these killings haven't been on a mass scale, but they add up, even if no one is doing the math. To date, they have never been fully counted.
The first veterans of the war in Afghanistan returned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 2002. In quick succession, four of them murdered their wives, after which three of the killers took their own lives. When a New York Times reporter asked a Special Forces officer to comment on these events, he replied: "SF's don't like to talk about emotional stuff. We are Type A people who just blow things like that off, like yesterday's news."
Indeed, much of the media and much of the country has done just that. While individual murders committed by "our nation's heroes" on the "home front" have been reported by media close to the scene, most such killings never make the national news, and many become invisible even locally when reported only as routine murders with no mention of the apparently insignificant fact that the killer was a veteran. Only when these crimes cluster around a military base do diligent local reporters seem to put the pieces of the bigger picture together.
By 2005, Fort Bragg had already counted its tenth such "domestic violence" fatality, while on the West coast, the Seattle Weekly had tallied the death toll among active-duty troops and veterans in western Washington state at seven homicides and three suicides. "Five wives, a girlfriend, and one child were slain; four other children lost one or both parents to death or imprisonment. Three servicemen committed suicide—two of them after killing their wife or girlfriend. Four soldiers were sent to prison. One awaited trial."
In January 2008, the New York Times tried for the first time to tally a nationwide count of such crimes. It found "121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war." It listed headlines drawn from smaller local newspapers: Lakewood, Washington, "Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife"; Pierre, South Dakota, "Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress"; Colorado Springs, Colorado, "Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring."
The Times found that about a third of the murder victims were wives, girlfriends, children, or other relatives of the killer, but significantly, a quarter of the victims were fellow soldiers. The rest were acquaintances or strangers. At that time, three quarters of the homicidal soldiers were still in the military. The number of killings then represented a nearly 90 percent increase in homicides committed by active duty personnel and veterans in the six years since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Yet after tracing this "cross-country trail of death and heartbreak," the Times noted that its research had probably uncovered only "the minimum number of such cases." One month later, it found "more than 150 cases of fatal domestic violence or [fatal] child abuse in the United States involving service members and new veterans."
More cases were already on the way. After the Fourth Brigade Combat team of Fort Carson, Colorado, returned from Iraq later in 2008, nine of its members were charged with homicide, while "charges of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault" at the base rose sharply. Three of the murder victims were wives or girlfriends; four were fellow soldiers (all men); and two were strangers, chosen at random.
Back at Fort Bragg and the nearby Marine base at Camp Lejeune, military men murdered four military women in a nine-month span between December 2007 and September 2008. By that time, retired Army Colonel Ann Wright had identified at least 15 highly suspicious deaths of women soldiers in the war zones that had been officially termed "non-combat related" or "suicide." She raised a question that has never been answered: "Is there an Army cover-up of rape and murder of women soldiers?" The murders that took place near (but not on) Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune, all investigated and prosecuted by civilian authorities, raised another question: Were some soldiers bringing home not only the generic violence of war, but also specific crimes they had rehearsed abroad?