The Mount Rainier Shooting and the Simplicity of Vet Narratives

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Mount Rainier

The tragic news last week that ranger Margaret Anderson was shot and killed in Mount Rainier National Park by Benjamin Colton Barnes brought with it national attention and a litany of sensational headlines. (What came first, the national attention or the sensational headlines, is a chicken-egg debate for another time.)

Some form of PARK RANGER MURDERED BY IRAQ VET splashed across the top of many prominent newspapers and news sites alike. And while technically not incorrect – Anderson was a park ranger, Barnes was an Iraq vet, and there was a murder – the simplicity of the narrative established by that headline does us all, vets and civilians alike, a great disservice.

The much vaunted military-civilian divide has created a curiosity and demand for stories about service members and veterans, which is a good thing. Knowledge is power and all that. The downside of this though, is in an ADD-addled culture and news cycle, there’s very little room for nuance and depth – and the road to and from combat is both. The result of this incongruence tends to result in sloppy stereotypes that belong in bygone eras. Such was the case here.

Generally speaking, there are three types of basic vet narratives in contemporary American media. One, the Hero Vet – a noble savage, ever-sacrificing and a bit dense. (See: The Hurt Locker.) Two, the Broken Vet – down on his or her luck, ravaged by memories of war, a pawn of a fake neo-empire. (See: The nightly news, every night.) And three, the Crazy Vet – PTSD, PTSD, PTSD! VETS ARE TRAINED KILLERS THAT WANT TO KILL YOU AND YOUR ADORABLE LABRADOR PUPPY! (See: this topic.) The latter narrative is where most of the Mount Rainier stories drifted, at least initially. MSNBC, for one, cited a protection order (rather than, you know, medical documentation from the military or a doctor) that claimed Barnes suffered from “possible PTSD.” Photos of a topless, tattooed Barnes posing with firearms started making the rounds at the same time, and the next thing you know, we’re an Antoine Dodson away from a “Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife (From the Vets)” remix.

First, let’s cover the PTSD aspect. Yes, according to a RAND study, nearly 1 in 5 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report symptoms of PTSD or major depression. That’s terrible. But PTSD is not equitable to being a bloodthirsty, homicidal maniac. It’s actually not just something that results from combat either, as it can result from any number of things, like a car accident, growing up in a foster home, or losing your band’s drummer to a bizarre gardening accident. PTSD is treatable and something millions of Americans overcome every day, not just veterans, and the vast majority of them are leading stable, productive lives. I don’t know how to be any clearer about that. This is the dark underbelly of PTSD awareness, I guess.

Are there veterans out there that fit the typical vet narratives, be them the hero, broken, or crazy? Of course. Most of us though, are some combination thereof, a combination that ebbs and flows depending on the day and the moment – the same as it does for our civilian peers. We’ve all had our heroic moments, and can only hope they trump our broken and crazy moments. As Brandon Friedman, the VA’s Director of Online Communications, wrote on Twitter after the Mount Rainier news broke: “The Mt. Rainier shooter is an Iraq vet. Also veterans: Kurt Vonnegut, Hitler, Tim McVeigh, and Johnny Carson. Weak correlation.” (Friedman has been all over this topic, by the way, getting the writer of the aforementioned MSNBC article to pen a thorough walkback of his own piece.)

There are 2.4 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. We’re a community as diverse and varying as any other of that size. And the overwhelming, 99.999999% majority of us want nothing more than to lead stable, productive lives – just like the rest of the nation. Fear not America -your Lab puppies are safe.