Article, "NYT Misfires on Veterans Story"

January 14, 2008 | Other News


NYT misfires on veterans story
[Phillip Carter, Sunday January 13, 2008 at 11:08am]

Sunday’s New York Times features a lengthy front-page article titled “Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles” — what it bills as Part I of a “series of articles and multimedia about veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings, or been charged with them, after coming home.”

Right….. Because we all know that all veterans are coming home crazy, shell-shocked, and ready to kill their friends and loved ones. Here’s how the NY Times staff produced this sensational story:
The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.

Three-quarters of these veterans were still in the military at the time of the killing. More than half the killings involved guns, and the rest were stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bathtub drownings. Twenty-five offenders faced murder, manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving.

* * *
The Pentagon does not keep track of such killings, most of which are prosecuted not by the military justice system but by civilian courts in state after state. Neither does the Justice Department.

To compile and analyze its list, The Times conducted a search of local news reports, examined police, court and military records and interviewed the defendants, their lawyers and families, the victims’ families and military and law enforcement officials.

This reporting most likely uncovered only the minimum number of such cases, given that not all killings, especially in big cities and on military bases, are reported publicly or in detail. Also, it was often not possible to determine the deployment history of other service members arrested on homicide charges.

The Times used the same methods to research homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans for the six years before and after the present wartime period began with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

This showed an 89 percent increase during the present wartime period, to 349 cases from 184, about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. The increase occurred even though there have been fewer troops stationed in the United States in the last six years and the American homicide rate has been, on average, lower.

The Pentagon was given The Times’s roster of homicides. It declined to comment because, a spokesman, Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, said, the Department of Defense could not duplicate the newspaper’s research. Further, Colonel Melnyk questioned the validity of comparing prewar and wartime numbers based on news media reports, saying that the current increase might be explained by “an increase in awareness of military service by reporters since 9/11.” He also questioned the value of “lumping together different crimes such as involuntary manslaughter with first-degree homicide.”
So, basically, the reporters went trolling on Lexis-Nexis and other databases to find “murder” within the same paragraph as “veteran” or “soldier,” and built a front-page story around that research. They compared the pre-war numbers to the post-war numbers and found that, voila!, there’s a difference. And then it looks like they cherry-picked the best anecdotes out of that research (including the ones where they could get interviews and photos) to craft a narrative which fit the data.

The article makes no attempt to produce a statistically valid comparison of homicide rates among vets to rates among the general population. Nor does it rely at all on Pentagon data about post-deployment incidents of violence among veterans. It basically just generalizes from this small sample (121 out of 1.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan vets, not including civilians and contractors) to conclude that today’s generation of veterans are coming home full of rage and ready to kill.

I’ve got a one-word verdict on this article and its research: bullshit.

To be sure, the article contains many truths about the struggles veterans face when they come home. Combat sears the mind and body in ways we can only begin to understand. An increased propensity to violence has been noted among veterans of previous wars, and by commanders supervising troops coming home from this one. However, there’s a long road from those observations to the conclusions in this article, and the evidence simply doesn’t add up in this story.

More broadly though, I worry about the larger narrative of this story. It seems like we’ve been down this road before — casting veterans in the role of crazed, violent, disturbed young men who come home from war to become homeless or criminal (or both). America needs to wrap its arms around its sons and daughters who go to war, not alienate them and push them away with this kind of narrative. We sent these men and women to fight; we have a sacred trust to ensure they’re taken care of when they come home. Irresponsible journalism like this impedes that effort by giving people the wrong impression about combat veterans. I’m disappointed in the New York Times for running this story, and for giving it such prominence.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Phillip Carter is an associate in McKenna Long & Aldridge’s New York City Office, where he is a member of the firm’s national Government Contracts practice group. Prior to joining McKenna Long & Aldridge, Phillip served as an officer in the United States Army, including nine years of active and reserve service with military police and civil affairs units. In 2005-06, he deployed to Iraq with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division where he served as an adviser to the Iraqi police.

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