Back-to-back attacks on police in Texas and Louisiana by former military men have touched a nerve among veterans who traditionally share a close bond with law enforcement.
Many southwest Ohio veterans fear the service records of the Baton Rouge and Dallas gunmen will feed a false perception that combat veterans are volatile and violent, turning back years of efforts to change such stereotypes.
Vietnam veteran Thomas Hagel, who was wounded in combat, said he hoped people wouldn’t assume the actions of the police shooters were representative of veterans or their service.
“These people are clearly not representative of combat veterans,” said Hagel, who served in Vietnam as an Army infantry soldier alongside his brother, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
“If you think about how many people have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, you have two examples of people who did these things,” said Hagel, a past commander of the Dayton chapter of Disabled American Veterans. He’s also a University of Dayton law school professor emeritus.
The Baton Rouge shooting came less than two weeks after five Dallas police officers were killed in an ambush by an Army Reserve veteran who had served in Afghanistan, according to authorities.
Veterans and active-duty troops started posting messages on social media almost immediately after the news broke last weekend that a masked ex-Marine had ambushed law enforcement along a busy highway, killing three officers — including a fellow former Marine.
Seeing one Marine kill another Marine after both had returned home safely from the battlefield in Iraq has been especially painful for the military’s smallest branch, which considers service life-long membership among a force whose official motto is: “Semper Fidelis,” or “Always Faithful.”
“In the Marine community, we don’t believe in ‘ex-Marines’. However that is not the case when one decides to break the moral and ethical values we hold dear. The ex-Marine that opened fire on officers is everything we swear to protect our Nation from,” Marine Cpl. Eric Trichel wrote on a Facebook page with about 25,000 mostly Marine members.
In an email to The Associated Press, he emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of the Marine Corps.
“It’s a very painful thing to make sense of, that two of our own could do this,” said Kathy Platoni, a Centerville psychologist and an Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who survived the Fort Hood, Texas, mass shooting in 2009.
Daniel M. Semsel, a retired Air Force colonel and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was “embarrassed” and “disappointed” veterans were tied to the police shootings.
“The reality is I’m just disappointed veterans of our military would take this course of action,” said Semsel, director of Veterans Employment Services at Goodwill Easter Seals Miami Valley in Dayton.
CNN reported Wednesday one of the gunman who served in Iraq had claimed he had post-traumatic stress disorder, but it wasn’t clear if he was diagnosed.
Platoni said post-traumatic stress and violence is a “very, very rare occurrence” and added: “I think these two shooters’ agenda had little or nothing to do with the military.”
Though perceptions have improved in recent years, many returning wartime veterans battle the stigma they have dealt with post-traumatic stress, Semsel said.
”It doesn’t help what we’re trying to do and it doesn’t help us break a stigma when you see something like this,” Semsel said.
“I get asked that question by employers on a regular basis,” he said. “What is the reality like?” VA statistics report 11 to 20 percent of returning veterans in recent conflicts have dealt with post traumatic stress.
An expert who has treated veterans for stress said personality issues would have been the most likely triggers for the men’s alleged actions, both of whom died in confrontations with police.
“One of the biggest concerns is that we don’t want to place too much emphasis on their veteran status as much as the emphasis that would be placed on their unique personalities because I think it’s their personalities that really are more to understand what happened and why they acted other then they’re veterans,” said William Wall, manager of the Freedom Center, a post deployment clinic at the Dayton VA Medical Center.
“In most cases, veterans are going to be extraordinarily law abiding,” he added. “They’re going to avoid these kind of situations for the most part because in many ways they are the peacekeepers.”
Wall, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, was a leader of a medical team in Iraq that treated soldiers for combat stress.
In the Dallas killing of five police officers, a gunman reportedly used cover and concealment tactics in a parking garage to fire on police officers on duty at a peaceful demonstration. Several, including police and civilians, were wounded.
Authorities identified the gunman as Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, of Mesquite, Texas, a former Army reservist who had deployed to Iraq to work in construction. Police negotiators had said Johnson was infuriated by the police killings of black men and vowed to kill white officers, media reports said.
In the Baton Rouge, La., killing of three officers, authorities identified the gunman as Gavin Eugene Long, 29, of Kansas City, Mo., a former Marine who deployed as a data network specialist to Afghanistan, according to media reports. In a You Tube video, he advocated a bloody response to recent police killings of African-American men, the New York Times reported.
Former Navy sailor William P. Harvey, a 69-year-old Vietnam era veteran in Hamilton, said the shootings concern him, but their military backgrounds should be judged separately.
“They’re being influenced by something else,” he said. “The military (doesn’t) teach you that behavior.”
Thomas C. Bush, an Air Force veteran who was in security forces and served in Desert Storm, said the Dallas shooter showed “rudimentary training” in the way he shot at officers, but many questions remain unanswered about his background.
The actions of the two alleged gunmen don’t represent the many veterans who support police officers, said Bush, of Riverside.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.