My wife asked the question after we learned that Robert Stewart Flores, who killed three professors at the University of Arizona before shooting himself, was a Gulf War veteran.
She asked me the same thing last week, when we learned John Allen Muhammed, better known as the Washington D.C. sniper, is also a Gulf War veteran. Not to mention British Gulf War vet Paul Delaney, who stabbed his ex-girlfriend and mother of two, Colleen Chudley, 30 or 40 times. Or Staff Sergeant Frank Ronghi, a Gulf War vet who murdered and sodomized an 11-year old girl in Kosovo. Or Jeffrey Glenn Hutchinson, also a Gulf vet, who murdered his girlfriend and her three children on Sept. 11, 1998. Or Joseph Ludlam, who murdered his former manager in November 2000. And then there’s the most famous Gulf War veteran of all, Timothy McVeigh, who killed hundreds of people in a homegrown terrorist attack in Oklahoma City.
Every time we hear of another incident like this, she asks me the same thing: “Are you okay?”
I can’t blame her for asking: I spent the first five years after the war in a rage, writing a novel about a Gulf War veteran whose pain and rage took him over the edge. I lived inside this guy’s head, and I felt what he felt, and shudder to think I have anything in common with people who would commit these kinds of crimes. Because while any population of people is bound to have some bad apples, it seems like we Gulf War veterans have had more than our share of late.
See, not all of the fighting happens on the battlefield, and not all of it is against the enemy. As the classic 1946 film, “The Best Years of our Lives,” so artfully presented, not everyone readjusts from war so easily. Sometimes we suffer from nightmares, lack of sleep, flashbacks. Sometimes the nightmares are when we are awake. Sometimes veterans inflict their nightmares on other people. War is all about killing and destruction, and the sane reaction to killing and destruction is to go a little bit crazy.
Consider the tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans who have committed suicide, or the tens of thousands of homeless veterans who’ve never been able to rejoin society. Just ask the growing numbers of incarcerated veterans. Just ask Timothy McVeigh. Oh … well, you can’t ask him.
The good news is that the vast majority of veterans who return from war come home well adjusted. They have their nightmares privately, without inflicting them on anyone else, and sometimes they courteously wait 30 or 40 years before they even realize the war affected them. But for some, they just can’t wait. The price of war is often anger, divorce, readjustment problems, drug addiction, homelessness, and sometimes murder.
Remember, when you go to the gas pump to buy your Middle Eastern oil, secured by the blood of American soldiers, this too is part of the price you pay. Not just being party to killings halfway around the world, which our society seems to tolerate with a glib “Let’s change the channel” attitude, but also the lives torn apart back home.
You may decide it’s okay — your chances of being murdered by a combat veteran are still less than the risk of being killed in a highway accident. But as we send another few hundred thousand young men and women off to war, the odds are about to get worse.
Charles Sheehan-Miles is a decorated Gulf War combat veteran and the author of “Prayer at Rumayla.”A former president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, he qualified as “Expert” on pistol and rifle, but doesn’t currently own any weapons.