Veteran Advocates Caution Against Pinning Navy Yard Shooting on PTSD

Combat stress likely did not cause a man to kill 12 in Navy Yard shooting, experts say.


Military health advocates are trying to distance ‘regular people’ with PTSD from alleged Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis.

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The shooter who took 12 lives and was eventually shot at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16 suffered from PTSD. News reports were quick to pick up on former enlisted sailor Aaron Alexis' troubled mental history, which included post-trauamtic stress he said he experienced responding to the victims of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

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It appeared to be a tidy addition to the news narrative of the troubled contractor. "VA: Aaron Alexis never sought treatment for PTSD," read one Navy Times headline. "Washington Gunman Aaron Alexis 'Had 9/11 PTSD'" reported Sky News. "When you're treated for PTSD, when you have two arrests, that ought to trigger something when you purchase a gun," said Fox News' Martha MacCallum in a subsequent on-air report.

Yet some veterans, as well as those who help them re-enter American society, say this is not a complete association.

"It's really unfortunate that there are all these misportrayals of those who have PTSD, when ultimately we're just regular people," says Derek Coy, who served as a Marine in Iraq from August 2005 to August 2006.

"Most people stereotype and think everyone is the same, and all the symptoms are the same," he says. "Because they just don't know a lot of veterans, they draw what they think they know from oversimplifications."

Coy worked as an aviation supply specialist in Anbar Province, and later spent a year aboard the USS Essex touring Southeast Asia. He was diagnosed with PTSD after entering civilian life, and is now a leadership fellow with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

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He sees media reports about the mental condition of Alexis and is reminded about popular movies that also claim to present the victims of PTSD. Robert De Niro in "Taxi Driver" and "Deer Hunter," or Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo" all help perpetuate the stereotype that veterans, particularly those with PTSD, are likely to lose control and turn to violence.

"Somebody going on a shooting rampage as a result of PTSD is extraordinarily unlikely," says Dr. Mark Pollack, a professor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and an expert in PTSD and other psychological disorders. "Individuals who experience it are not, generally, violent. That's not a core symptom."

The Department of Veterans Affairs cites studies on its website that point to a connection between PTSD and suicide, though it says the direct correlation is debatable.

"The vast majority of violent acts that occur are done by individuals who are not associated with mental illness," says Pollack. "And a vast majority of people with mental illness do not conduct violent acts."

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon two days after the shooting that he supports his earlier decision to remove questions about previous mental health treatments from some Department of Defense security forms.

"I was one of those...who believe that men and women should have the opportunity to overcome their mental disorders or their mental challenges, or their clinical health challenges and shouldn't be stigmatized," he said on Sept. 18. "I remain in that camp, that a man or woman should have the chance to, with treatment, to overcome them and have a fruitful life and gain employment, including inside the military."

The presence or absence of a question on a form likely would not have stopped Alexis from committing murder, he said.

Pollack says this perspective is useful for correcting these false stigmas.

"The idea that [those with PTSD] would permanently lose the opportunity to work or pursue a career is wrong," Pollack says.

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"The vast majority of people with psychiatric difficulties are not representing a threat to anybody else," he says, adding that developing the confidence to seek treatment could begin with simply talking to someone and feeling understood.