News Media Hurts Vets’ Reputation

An example of how unfair reporting is impacting vets can be seen in San Diego where fears that the DVA is planning to open a residential treatment program for Vets with PTSD and mild TBI has sparked a debate over public safety.

Source: VAntage Point Blog | by Kate Hoit

The “Dangerous” Veteran: An Inaccurate Media Narrative Takes Hold

In a San Diego, California neighborhood, debate is raging: The Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to establish a residential treatment program for Veterans with PTSD and mild traumatic brain injuries.

On its face, the idea doesn’t seem controversial. After all, given two wars in the past decade, the U.S. government is doing what it can to provide Vets with the best care possible. But that’s not how some San Diegans view the situation. They say the facility will be too close to a school. They say it’s “just the wrong place.”

Without saying as much, this is an example where some in a community are simply not comfortable with what they view as damaged and potentially unstable Veterans being near a school. Of course, this attitude doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and it wasn’t formed recently.  There is a reason people have such views of those who once protected them.

If you’ve read the news lately, you may have seen one of several stories describing recent Veterans as “ticking time bombs” or as “dangerous” on account of post-traumatic stress. It’s a narrative that has persisted for decades, but a handful of recent high-profile incidents have resulted in headlines like these:

Police get help with vets who are ticking bombs (USA TODAY)

Experts: Vets’ PTSD, violence a growing problem (CNN)

Veteran charged with homeless murders: Hint of larger problem for US military? (Christian Science Monitor)

While these stories highlight horrific killings, the connection between disturbed murderers like Benjamin Barnes and Itzcoatl Ocampo and their service in combat is weak—despite what media reports and popular culture would have many believe.  And such rhetoric, when solidified in the public consciousness, can have negative consequences for both Veterans and society—like causing Veterans to avoid seeking help or employers to avoid hiring them.

“This is a huge misrepresentation of Veterans,” said Rich Blake, an Iraq War Veteran and psychology doctoral student at Loyola University Maryland. “Crazed? That’s even more extreme.”

For the past two years, Blake has worked with Veterans who have PTSD in the residential trauma recovery program and the women’s mental health clinic at the Baltimore VA Medical Center. He doesn’t shy away from the obvious—that combat and wartime experience can have mental health consequences—which can contribute to some Vets acting out. But he throws caution to the idea that this is an epidemic.

“[These incidents] are like shark attack stories,” said Blake. “People are scared of shark attacks but they don’t happen that often.”

In a 2007 report on Veterans in state and federal prison—the most current report of its kind—researchers at the Bureau of Justice Statistics worked to demystify the vagaries surrounding Veterans and crime. As it turned out, during the past three decades, the number of Veterans in state and federal prison had actually declined. And when the mental health of Veterans in prison was compared to that of their civilian counterparts, there seemed to be a trend: Civilians reported a higher rate of “any mental health problems” than Veterans—both in state and federal prison.

When it came to psychotic disorder, which represents the more extreme end of the spectrum of mental health problems, the rates remained higher among civilians as well.

When the survey was conducted in 2004, the Veteran population in the U.S. was 24 million. America’s prisons were home to 140,000 Vets—of which 21,000 had been convicted of murder. And while those numbers seem large, this accounts for less than 1/10 of one percent of the entire Veteran population. A far cry from what some in the media would lead us to believe.

While a small fraction of Veterans have been convicted of murder, it often matters little in a media atmosphere which can place a premium on sensational headlines. In such an environment, Veterans are often stereotyped by those with an unclear understanding of what it means to live with PTSD. And the fact is, there is no limit to the number of reasons why a person might choose to become violent.

“The headlines are irresponsible,” said Brian Hawthorne, an Iraq War Veteran and board member of Student Veterans of America. “Murder should be talked about but shouldn’t be centered on the instability of a few in our military population.”

According to Gerhard Falk’s Murder: An Analysis of Its Forms, Conditions, and Causes, the occupations most likely to include murderers are laborers, service workers, and students. A comparison of those findings with the FBI’s Most Wanted list for violent crimes in 2012 shows a similar occurrence of occupations. Overwhelmingly, the top three offenders by occupation are general laborers, construction workers, and gang members.

Of course, we rarely—if ever—see articles hinting at a larger problem within the laborer field or the construction field. Likely, this is because we inherently understand that occupation or work experience doesn’t typically factor into a propensity for murder. Then again, headlines that scream, “Man Yielding Concrete Mix Charged with Murder: Hint of a Larger Problem?” are likely not as profitable.

Unfortunately, this rehashed portrayal of PTSD, reminiscent of the Vietnam era, has the power to deter Veterans from openly speaking about their service—especially in today’s economic climate—when unemployment among younger Vets hovers between 20 and 30 percent. That concerns Iraq Veteran Ryan Gallucci, now with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“Vietnam Veterans were stereotyped as the crazy Veteran, but over the years we’ve proven that isn’t the case,” said Gallucci, the VFW’s National Legislative Service Deputy Director. “What concerns us are today’s Veterans sitting down for a job interview and once they mention their military service, the tone of the conversation changes.”

While most can discern between sensationalized news stories, the reality is that less than one percent of the population serves in uniform—leaving many with a slim exposure to today’s Vets. And this is the image they are fed—as seen in a January issue of The Week:

Blackouts, flashbacks, night terrors, and sudden rages are common among veterans; suicide, alcoholism, and drug use have surged. PTSD has been cited as a factor in many acts of vets running amok. . .

As long as such language remains prevalent and acceptable, college admission offices, future employers, and those alike can peg today’s Veterans as “running amok” with the tendency to burst into “sudden rages”—quietly widening the divide further between Veterans and civilians.

“Overall this creates at most a hostile and at least uncomfortable situation for Veterans in school or the workplace,” said Hawthorne. “Teachers may not encourage Vets to share their opinions in the classroom out of fear of creating a negative environment.”

Dr. Sonja Batten, the Deputy Chief Consultant for Specialty Mental Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs added, “The truth is, PTSD doesn’t have to and shouldn’t impede success in everyday life for Veterans. Years of research have demonstrated again and again that most people recover naturally after experiencing potentially traumatic events, and we have effective treatments for those who develop more significant problems with PTSD. I think what gets lost in these stories are the amazing strengths that our nation’s Veterans have.”

In fiscal year 2011, over 476,000 Veterans received treatment at VA medical centers and clinics across the country for PTSD. Of those, 99,000 were Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. Dr. Batten expects more Vets to seek treatment in the coming years.

“We have made progress in the fight against PTSD stigma,” she said. “Veterans are now more likely to recognize if something is wrong and come forward so that they can move on with their lives.”

While the country has slowly begun to recognize post-traumatic stress—from “soldier’s heart” to “shell shock” to “combat fatigue”—there are still barriers preventing Veterans from seeking help. According to one survey of OEF/OIF Veterans, there is still legitimate concern over asking for care.

With imbalanced portrayals of PTSD, these ideas will continue to fuel misunderstandings like the type seen in San Diego. But we have the leverage to change this—to make a conscious decision to understand what it means to live with PTSD. And to give those who have served a fair shot by stripping away those unwarranted stereotypes and seeing Veterans for who they really are.

If you feel you might be struggling with post-traumatic stress, visit our PTSD resource directory for information on symptoms, treatments, issues specific to female Veterans, and more. For immediate help, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. It’s open day and night, along with our online chat. If you prefer text messaging, send a message to 838255.

About the Author

Terry Howell
Before becoming the Managing Editor for, Terry served 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard as an Aviation Electrician’s Mate and aircrewman. In his final role in the Coast Guard, Terry served as a Career Development Advisor, where he provided career, finance, education, and benefits counseling to servicemembers and their families. Since retiring from the Coast Guard, Terry has authored the book, The Military Advantage, managed the content for TurboTap, the DoD's online transition program and VAforVets, the VA's transition assistance website. Terry earned both his Bachelor's and MBA at Corban University using Military Tuition Assistance and his GI Bill benefits to help cover the cost.
  • Lori

    The public views VETS as a cross between Rambo and Jack the Ripper.

    Since the majority of the population has no clue about the military, the oh so righteous news media uses their ignorance to boost sales, demoralize our troops, and basically degrade the security of our country. What can you expect when our own president bows to a Saudi King and grovels to Iran and Afghanistan.

  • Elijah

    And in addition, the media protrays Christains as dumb, physcO’s, whimps, unstable, murderers, morons, whore mongers, traitors, and all round jack-asses. Our Christian Leadership says nothing. They hide in a Chruch somewhere.

  • IamAlwaysRight

    You people are JUST NOW realizing this? This has been going on a long time. Look at the past movies about the military that the holier than thou hollywood crowd has put out – remember the trashing in the media of the military under President Bush? The media only portray the military and vets in a positive light when they feel it will help Obama.

    • Vietnam combat medic

      What does the president have to do with this. Why do you ignorant right wingers always have to puke up what you hear on fox propaganda station

  • blackcoat

    I say get the attention of those in the area where the Vet Center is planned to be built. Pass the word along the lines of “You do not welcome our veterans that are ill then our healthy ones will not spend any money within ten miles of the “not wanted property.”

  • jumper

    Our own government has fomented much of this, the DHS and the incompetent baffoon who heads it released a report that returning vets were a serious potential domestic terrorist threat. They then later admitted this warning was based on nothing, not a comprehensive study, not historical precedence, just an email by some low level staffer.

  • REMF

    In case of war, break glass. Otherwise stay away… Sad truely sad.

    • Tim

      This is probably the most succinct way to summarize society’s feelings toward us. Put us in the spotlight when things are going wrong, but try to forget who we are and what we’ve done for our country when it becomes uncomfortable.

      Well said REMF.


      REMF? Didn’t “hear” the term until long after I left The Nam. In any event WELCOME HOME!

  • When I was getting my concealed weapons permit in PA a couple of years ago, I had to go to the local sheriff’s office to fill out the form and get my picture taken. At the time I wasn’t working, just having left active duty so I had put down “unemployed”. The sherriff asked me what my prior job was, and I told him active duty Army. He thanked me for my service, and went ahead to process my application. He turned to me and said “Now this doesn’t give you a license to shoot whever you like, like you are back in Iraq or something”. I replied “I have more rights to use my own firearm in my own home than when I was in Baghdad driving convoys”.

  • Stayonmywatch

    Well when people wake up to the fact the government is operating a De Facto form of Government are all agency’s are private corporations listed on Dunn and Bradstreet so this means they are being traded. So here is where you start to connect dots no matter what you want to believe or not the Media is to bought and paid for. So they get there orders and they report read papers from other countries you will learn more about your contry then you will in this country. Did the Media report the 40,000 new laws that went through on the 1st of January 2012 oh yes and that was a Sunday . No Congress. So how did this happen ? One Read the Bankruptcy Act of 1933 and rad the 4th headless Branch of governement. You can even find an article in the Miami Herald June 9th 1958 that explains it in print. or google the Corporation Nation apply yourself and get education that may well set you right into orbit. it did me. Als there is Blog by the same name. Maybe Even go to You tube and check out Walter Burien. Of Rod Class who explains and shows you how law was written and is being abused buy people who have no constitutional Oath. It is time for people to get with it get the education you were never given in school. Time to stop whining and get to work and learn it is all there. Stop being a slave. Stop being a victim and become a knowledge weapon loaded with Education and for ammo. And put there own rules and procedures back in there face and file paper work on them. Waving signs and voting in a new CEO which is what the Presidents seat is for a fact listed on Dunn and Bradstreet as Private Corporation. or let it all slide away! everyone has to take a stand and present the evidence in constructive manner. the media is just Kiss ass organisation of the government. People really have to be smart enough to see this by now. Degrading Oath Keepers who defended this country., Now you make them into villains and dangerous people shame on media spin Doctors. Bird Cage Liners that is about all they are good for!

  • Kim

    Just give California to Mexico and bring our Troops home. That State has been a morally bankrupt for years!!!! They make me sick out there. The land of fruits and nuts.

    • Mgunns

      Thats what the boader folks asked me when I went into Cal. Do you have any fruits or vegies and I told them no they are already in Cal. No smile just waved me on.

    • pete

      Not all of us out here fit the “fruits and nuts” mold, but we can’t pick up and leave.

      Per the Feb 2012 report from the Federal Election Commission:
      1. “… Jeffery Katzenberg and Steven Speilberg are among the affluent Californians taking advantage of new campaign rules tha tallow them to donate unlimited amounts to assist President Obama’s re-election.”
      2. “…the figures show Obama raised $13.7 million last year, more than all of his Republican challengers combined.”
      3. “Statewide, Obama’s donors ranged from Hollywood stars Will Smith and George Clooney to Silicon Valley moguls Eric Schmidt, president of Google, and Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist.”
      4. “As the result of several recent Supreme Court decisions, donors can give unlimited sums to “super PAC’s”… ”
      5. “In all, 14 Californians accounted for half of the Obama PAC’s nationwide total donations.”

      Those laws that allow this weren’t passed by ONLY Californians. If your Senators and Representatives voted for them, the people who elected them to office are just as guilty of the moral decay in this country. The “vote out everybody but mine” attitude is what keeps us in our nose down spiral.

  • Jimbo


    Remember that the media is a business, selling its wares. It’s all designed to sell, not report the truth. The truth just isn’t exciting enough!

  • Sgt Alex Figueroa

    Well we should know better than trust the media and Dem,its ok when we answer the call[My two sons included,once you serve you become more expendable than when on Active duty,but I serve muycountry and my brothers in arms,they realy forget,that ok Ididnot serve for them I served my America God Bless Her Always.Sgt Alex Figueroa USA RET.

  • Harvey T. Neher

    This has been going on ever sence the 60’s and that was an all together differant war then but we all have PTSD even from that war but no one wants to own up to it . I know this because I have been turned down for it 32three times.

  • Jim

    The Media has always looked down on the Vet. Remember when we came back from Viet Nam We were all “baby killers and drug addicts” The media today is the same. Don’t listen to their screwed up rhetoric. Be proud of what you have done for your country and don’t apologize for it (like our CinC now) A x Army Medic

  • C. Gunter

    Same old story, new war. We were called baby killers and drug addicts. Anything the press could throw out that would soil the vets of the Vietnam era. The real loss of reputation belonged with Washington but they avoided all the responsibility since they were the pullers of the strings and we were the puppets. At that time, I nor any other vet could speak out about the chain of command. No more. I will no longer sit idly by and pretend to be mute allowing my government to continue its lies to protect the politicians and their cronies. The sad truth of what our so called patriotic politicians has done and caused to be done to the American vet must be laid where it belongs. Squarely on the laps of congress and the executive branch of our government. Only by voting and removing from office the career politicians who are either naive or totally inept or both can our government once again be a government of the people by the people and for the people.

    • GoodSoldierMike

      For us, it took 30 years and the publication of “Stolen Valor” to replace the image of the addled, addicted, violent, flash-backing Vietnam vet with the truth, that is, that we as a group had done better than the population as a whole, not worse. The NY Times tried this crap in about 2004 and their bogus statistics were blown out of the water; now Ms. Holt’s article joins the contemporary refuting of this harmful myth so GWOT vets don’t have to be misrepresented for 30 years.

  • Dan Rondeau

    At some point, the liberal media will have successfully divided our country into those that contribute (security, taxes, jobs) to our society and those that sit back and denigrate every fundamental institution upon which we have collectively prospered. Then, perhaps we will need to create two countries and put the liberal media in the one they deserve. After twenty years of serving, I no longer feel the responsibility to defend the right of the left. It is not human nature to “feed a dog that keeps biting you”.

  • ToddMac

    It doesn’t help our cause as Veterans any when one of us goes and shoots a bunch of Afghani villagers like just happenend. All the progress we have made since Vietnam gets set right back to square one with the liberal media idiots. The rule of the media is- “If it bleeds, it leads.” The media doesn’t care about Veterans. The more sensational they can make the story, the better it is for their business. More people watch their channel so they can charge their advertisers more. It all comes down to the bottom line, and how to make money. They profit from making us look bad.


    Seems after every war the US has been involved in our nations citizens first sense is one of relief. But as life returns to normal a backlash occurrs. The role of the military is no longer essential nor praiseworthy. Vietnam was the only exception. The backlash began at the midway point and just got worse.
    Must have something to do with the peace-loving nature of the American People. Keep your chin up and “Maintain Thy Cool”, it will pass.

  • PPFT

    Wow! That is a bad idea putting it near a school. What are they trying to do? Get our Vet’s killed by some crazy student???

    • Old Infantryman

      Your right!!! How many soldiers have walked into a school and gunned down anyone compared to students, parents, or even facualty?

  • doc

    If you use the media rationale, any news piece deserves sensationalism because it will sell the news, especially if it places a group of people in a bad light. Look what the recent news events have done to teachers…makes them all sound like pedophiles due to the actions of a few, yet there are tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of perfectly great ones out there. Same with us veterans. Just because of a service connected injury, we all get colored with the same broad brush. I made it through 45 years with no criminal record and even earned advanced degrees, and I don’t think I’m the unusual one, just one of the mix. We deserve understanding, and whatever help is necessary to assimilate into society as productive citizens, regardless of what war we served in. After all, if you don’t treat your veterans with compassion and dignity, who will you get to fight your next war when we’re all gone?

  • Eleanore Webster

    I feel f feel so much with every soldier who went through so much, death, blood, lost limbs, wife and kids alone for months, Four,Five times back to that hell text right here!