While public anger is directed at the Pentagon for sending American soldiers ill-prepared to fight in Iraq, an equally troubling problem is rearing its head at home. Military veterans are returning from the war zone just as ill-prepared for civilian life and dozens suffering from post-traumatic stress are committing murder and manslaughter.
A new study has identified more than 120 killings committed by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as psychologically troubled soldiers slip through the net of an overextended military mental health system.
The study, which was conducted from examining local news reports, and which may well dramatically understate the scale of the problem, suggested that killings by military veterans have almost doubled since the start of the wars.
Although the Pentagon immediately questioned the accuracy of the figures, the mounting number of incidents across the US add up to a social problem akin to the traumas of returning Vietnam veterans a generation earlier.
The stories are harrowing. About a third involve the killing of a spouse, girlfriend or other relative, among them two-year-old Krisiauna Calaira Lewis, whose 20-year-old father slammed her against a wall when he was recuperating from a bombing near Fallujah that blew off his foot and damaged his brain.
Many others implicate drink and drugs, an increasing refuge for veterans traumatised by deaths they have witnessed or caused during the counter-insurgency led by American troops. The US government is being sued by relatives of 25-year-old Marine Lucas Borges, who became addicted to inhaling ether after a tour of Iraq at the beginning of the war, and who was convicted of second degree murder for crashing his car into an vehicle while driving the wrong way down a motorway, killing the other driver and injuring four others.
Collectively, the stories attest to the inadequacies of the US military mental health system, which a Pentagon task force last year described as "woefully understaffed", poorly funded and undermined by the stigma still attached to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The disorder has been a major concern since veterans' associations found that 15 per cent of Vietnam vets still suffered from PTSD a decade after the conflict ended in 1975.
"To truly support our troops, we need to apply our lessons from history and new-found knowledge about PTSD to help the most troubled of our returning veterans," Brockton Hunter, a criminal defence lawyer specialising in these cases, said in a recent lecture.
The study of killings by military veterans was conducted by The New York Times. It showed an 89 percent increase – from 184 cases to 349 – in the six years following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan in the number of homicides involving active-duty military personnel and new veterans. About three-quarters of these cases involved Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
More than half of the crimes involved guns while the rest were stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bath drownings, the report said. Twenty-five offenders faced murder, manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving.
A Pentagon spokesman questioned the methodology of the study, which examined local press reports to identify cases, and rejected the comparison of post-9/11 coverage with the previous six years. The rise might be due to newspaper reporters increased awareness of military service, a spokesman suggested, and questioned the "lumping together" of different kinds of crimes.
The New York Times said its study was conservative. "This reporting most likely uncovered only the minimum number of such cases, given that not all killings, especially in big cities and on military bases, are reported publicly or in detail," it added.