This past Memorial Day weekend, as your timeline filled up with stock images of flags and coffins alongside effusive posts thanking our servicemen, did you ask yourself: are we as a nation really thankful?
If we are truly thankful, what does that gratitude look like?
There are a multitude of answers to that question that cannot all be summed up here (employment, healthcare, no more unconstitutional wars). But I will tell you what gratitude does not look like — the country executing hundreds of those very same veterans.
It’s estimated that at least 10% of our death row population is made up of veterans, and many others have already been executed.
There are a whole host of problems to unpack from that factoid. First, roughly 7% of the population has served in the military. Based on those figures alone, veterans are over-represented on the country’s death rows. Secondly, it’s hard to overlook the socioeconomic bias of this reality, a bias that permeates the system of capital punishment but also carries an extra gut-punch when you consider how many people from lower-income backgrounds pursue enlistment as a means of escaping poverty.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is the underlying trauma that so many veterans incur during the course of their service. Veterans suffering from trauma face physical and emotional issues that often don’t get proper medical treatment. We now know that, left untreated, those issues can result in outbursts of rage and violence.
One study that examined the exposure to trauma experienced by veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan found that 88% witnessed a dead body, 83% saw someone killed (often a fellow soldier), 40% were injured themselves, 31% caused the death of an enemy, 21% handled human remains, 20% caused the death of a civilian, and 12% were directly responsible for the death of a child.
It is absurd to think that we can expose people to these horrors and not live with consequences. Seeing war and participating in death can change a person’s brain function and chemistry. We know this, but we aren’t doing enough about it.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the disorders that frequently affects veterans. While it has garnered far more recognition by the general public in recent decades, its impacts and severity have not. Caused by traumatic stress, PTSD alters the stress response areas of the brain (amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex) and increases the cortisol and norepinephrine responses to stress. This can lead to an over-triggering of the nervous system, flashbacks, and irritable or aggressive behavior. Yet there are still many who believe this is a condition that individuals should simply get over or that they can fake. We’re far from viewing the disorder through its proper lens of something that can lead to violence.
Traumatic brain injuries are a lesser known yet frequent problem for many veterans. Damage to specific areas of the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes, amygdala, and hippocampus can leave survivors vulnerable to agitation, volatile emotions, memory impairment, verbal attacks, physical aggression, and impaired impulse control. These are serious injuries that alter a person’s behavior and actions, and should be seen weighed properly as mitigating evidence, but they frequently are not.
On Memorial Day, we should be ashamed that our country asks people to serve in war zones on our behalf, where they are often severely harmed, and provides them with little to no treatment for disorders that we know can lead to violence. Then, the same government they were injured trying to protect executes them for that violence.
None of this is to suggest that people, veterans included, are not responsible for their actions. All people should be held accountable, and violent people should be separated from society. But we must begin to recognize the different culpability of people who have incurred severe trauma. There are scientific differences in their brain functions that cannot be ignored.
So, instead of that Facebook post next Memorial Day weekend, take it a step further and commit to finding ways that you can actually support our troops and show our gratitude for their service. Advocate for better mental health services for those who have given so much for us, and pay attention to how they’re being treated in our criminal justice system. Those actions would be a great start in supporting our troops and thanking our veterans.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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