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Veterans Fight Misconception: Wartime Service Is Linked To Violent Crime


The shooting in Fort Lauderdale last week has some asking questions about whether there's a connection between a shooter's military service and the violence he allegedly carried out. Esteban Santiago made his first court appearance yesterday for allegedly shooting and killing five people at the Fort Lauderdale airport on Friday. He may face the death penalty if convicted.

The Pentagon has confirmed that he is a National Guard veteran who saw combat in Iraq. But experts say it's not right to draw a connection between his military service and violent behavior. Veterans say it's a myth they have to confront all the time. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Within hours of the shooting in Fort Lauderdale, authorities confirmed that the suspect had a military ID. That's all it took, says Iraq vet Bill Rausch.

BILL RAUSCH: It's easy. It's a tight, tidy headline.

LAWRENCE: Rausch leads an organization called Got Your 6, which aims to change misperceptions about veterans.

RAUSCH: Unfortunately, it feeds a false narrative that all veterans have post-traumatic stress, that post-traumatic stress leads to mass shootings, that combat translates to these types of events. And in this situation, we don't know any of those things to be true.

LAWRENCE: Estimates vary about how many veterans have PTSD, but it's almost certainly a minority. The Department of Veterans Affairs says PTSD can be linked to violence in a minority of cases. That's usually domestic violence. In general, veterans are less likely to be involved in crime than civilians.

In the Fort Lauderdale case, there's, so far, no evidence that Esteban Santiago had PTSD. The FBI has confirmed the suspect told agents last year that he was hearing voices encouraging him to commit terrorism. That's not a symptom of PTSD. But even other mental illnesses are not statistically linked to gun violence, says Dr. Sandro Galea, Dean of Boston University School of Public Health.

SANDRO GALEA: These are common misconceptions, and they've been around for decades. There's an extraordinary stigma around mental illness. There's an actual fear, I think, of mental illness. And in many respects, our systems and structures have reinforced that.

LAWRENCE: Galea says the stigma makes it harder to get people into treatment for mental illness. And he says the easy narrative of the crazed war vet just puts off a more accurate discussion about why the U.S. alone, among developed nations, suffers regular mass shootings. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DINOSAUR JR SONG, "I GOT LOST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.

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