What We Need to Learn From The Afghan Massacre

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A mourner cries over the bodies of Afghan civilians, allegedly shot by a rogue U.S. soldier.

Our nation is struggling to understand the horrific act of violence by one U.S. soldier last Sunday that left 16 Afghan civilians dead – many of whom were children.

Though apparently planned, this was an irrational act—one that was likely implemented to satisfy an overwhelming need or urge. It may have been triggered by a complex collection of psychological factors and environmental experiences. These factors and experiences in no way excuse the act, but we still need to understand them.

Horrified and saddened by this senseless loss of life, we try to imagine what could have triggered such cold-blooded brutality. As more information surfaces—about the soldier’s state of mind at the time of the attack, about his reported three tours of duty in Iraq prior to his deployment to Afghanistan, about his relationships within his unit, and about his family life back home—we will piece together some of the answers to these questions.

It is unlikely that providing answers to our questions will lessen the rage felt by the Afghanistan people, or the retaliatory acts of violence that will certainly follow. But putting together the pieces of this tragedy may help us reach others who have become so troubled, and thereby prevent such extreme acts of destruction.

Before we focus on understanding how this soldier’s life experience, as well as his time in combat, if any, might have lead to such horrific acts, it is important to remember what we know about our service members, our veterans, and their families. While all are changed by their experience of combat, most do not come home with severe mental health issues.

Research varies with respect to the numbers we believe are adversely affected by the experience of combat. Some studies indicate that as many as 35% will have evidence of significant mental health consequences. But as accurate (and alarming) as that number may be, we must remember that 65% do not come home with severe mental health concerns.

Moreover, we know that if we provide support and appropriate treatment for those who are suffering, most individuals will experience a reduction of symptoms. Most individuals will learn to manage those symptoms that remain. Also, while multiple deployments and transitions back home stress military families, most report that they are able to harness sufficient resources and support to remain resilient and healthy during these demanding times.

Finally, those who come home suffering from painful and, at times, debilitating symptoms resulting from the experience of trauma they have witnessed, or participated in, rarely engage in the kind of violent behavior that resulted in 16 civilian deaths.

Many of those who do suffer from post-traumatic stress—and this is true for civilians as well as returning warriors—continue to lead their lives, continue to work toward their goals, and continue to be productive members of society as they endeavor to heal.

Understanding one man’s demons, and the horrible act that resulted from the darkness that plagued him, is important. But we must also remember that this was the act of a very disturbed individual. This type of disturbance, alas, can happen to someone in the military or someone who has never worn the uniform.

Barbara Van Dahlen is a Washington, D.C.-area psychologist who founded Give An Hour, a private non-profit group that pairs volunteer mental-health professionals with U.S. military personnel back from war.