In recent years most Americans have realized the mistake that many made by demonizing the troops as they returned from Vietnam. Soldiers are now getting the thanks that they deserve for their service and sacrifices. But sadly, the level of public adulation for the troops is not being matched by the support they need from the government, particularly in terms of mental health treatment.
War is far from the glamorous adventure depicted on TV and in movies. It is a traumatic, life-changing experience. The problems of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been well documented over the years. But a shocking new report released by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reveals something that has not received much if any attention: veterans suffering from PTSD and other post-combat mental disorders are winding up on death row in alarming numbers.
According to the report, titled “Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty,” there are some 300 combat veterans on death row in the United States. That’s about 10 percent of all inmates currently sentenced to death. The press release accompanying the publication of the report offers this heartbreaking scene:
As the country prepares to honor its military veterans on November 11, it may be a sobering and surprising revelation that many veterans have been adjudged as ‘the worst of the worst,’ condemned to death, and executed by the government they once served. The first person executed this year was Andrew Brannan, a decorated combat veteran who fought in Vietnam, but returned with PTSD. He qualified for 100 percent disability from the Veterans Administration because of his mental disabilities. In a fleeting moment of out-of-character violence, he killed a police officer who had stopped him for speeding. At his trial, Brannan’s lawyer made little mention of the mental scars from his military service and the prosecution mocked his claim of PTSD. The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied him clemency. Other veterans have received their medals for dedicated service while on death row, but no real mercy.
Richard Dieter, author of the report, says that PTSD should not be used as an excuse for committing crimes. But he goes on to say that PTSD is “a serious mental and emotional disorder that should be a strong mitigating factor against imposing the death penalty.” He says that defense attorneys often don’t do enough investigation into their client’s background, and that judges and prosecutors are often poorly informed about the psychological strain a soldier is under in combat.
It is troubling that in a time when the death penalty is being applied less, it seems to be applied to military veterans more. Robert Dunham, Executive Director of DPIC, says,
At a time in which the death penalty is being imposed less and less, it is disturbing that so many veterans who were mentally and emotionally scarred while serving their country are now facing execution. It is our hope that a better understanding of the extreme and long-lasting effects of trauma and the resulting disabilities many veterans have experienced will lead to a larger conversation about imposing capital punishment on trauma survivors and other people with severe mental illnesses.
And how has Washington handled mentally ill veterans? For years there have been questions on whether PTSD is a legitimate illness. Some veterans, like Afghanistan veteran Daniel Hibbard, have seen their PTSD diagnosis reclassified, apparently as a way for the government to avoid culpability for the illness.
Think for a minute about how being involved in battle is portrayed, not just in movies, but in military recruiting commercials, and it may become obvious why the government wants to sweep the issue of veterans and mental illness under the rug. It just wouldn’t sell too well to tell potential recruits that they could go off to one of our ever more frequent conflicts, and come home perhaps in one piece physically, but with severe mental health issues that could see them wind up on death row.
You can read the entire report, “Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty,” by clicking here.
Featured image via Dumpaday