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Veterans' advocates on Tuesday slammed headlines and news stories that tied the Washington Navy Yard shooter's military service to the killings.
"There is no evidence that the shooter's military service played any role in causing what happened yesterday," said Phillip Carter, an Iraq War veteran and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. "And yet most of the headlines I've seen suggest that that's not the case, that the reverse is the case."
Carter fired off on one of the earliest criticisms in a tweet to The Washington Post for its Monday afternoon headline: "Navy Yard gunman said to be troubled veteran."
Other papers carried similar headlines or sub-heads: "Gunman was in Navy Reserve; arrested in 2004," the Colorado Gazette noted. "Shooter was in Navy Reserve; worked with Defense Dept," The Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News reported. "Former navy reservist arrested in 2004 Seattle shooting; suffered anger-fueled 'blackout'," said The Fresno (Calif.) Bee in a subhead.
"This is the 'Rambo' narrative that was so dangerous and hurtful to the Vietnam generation come to life," Carter said, referring to "John Rambo," the fictional Vietnam veteran filled with repressed rage who lashes out against American law enforcement after being beaten by a small-town sheriff.
Many media outlets played up the fact shooter Aaron Alexis had served in the Navy Reserve but was separated from the service before he completed his entire term. Some reports noted he was "a decorated" sailor, though he never served in the combat theater.
"He never deployed, his ribbons were the National Defense Service Medal and the GWOT – standard decorations for being in the military at this time," said Joe Davis said, national spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. And while there are some reports that Alexis had some mental health issues, nothing indicates these stem from his time in the Reserve, Davis said.
"It's a broad brush painting on all of us, and it's totally unfair," he said. It is rare that veterans – regardless of their experiences in the military or in war – resort to violence, Davis said. "We need to protect our own image out there. This is not who we are."
According to reports Alexis served in the Navy Reserve from 2007 to 2011, making aviation electrician's mate 3rd class and working on aircraft electrical systems before being honorably discharged for a "pattern of misconduct."
The Navy will not comment on whether Alexis had any psychiatric problems while in the service, and neither the FBI nor Washington, DC, police will discuss what they learned of his medical history.
Tom Tarantino, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said "the fact he was in the military and was a veteran, and may or may not … have had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), isn't related to the fact he committed a heinous, violent act."
"When reporting facts about his life it is appropriate, but the way it's framed in the media is that, well, he's a veteran, implying there is a causal relationship between being a veteran and having a mental health condition and being violent, when these are not necessarily … or generally related," Tarantino said.
PTSD is a fairly common diagnosis, not only for people in the military but for anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma, he said.
"And nearly 100 percent [of these people] do not commit violent acts," he said. "Not only is it just incorrect but incredibly insulting to millions of men and women who honorable served, who deployed and who defended this country, but also … to thousands who actually are suffering and trying to recover."
"Before it was in TV and film," said Tarantino, who also reference the Rambo character. "Some responsibility you abdicate to TV and movies – they're trying to tell a story, they're not reporting fact. There's a suspension of disbelief you have to live with. But for the media, there's no excuse."
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