Army veteran Rick Schumacher has a job interview next week, and he hopes the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting comes up.
“At least then I’d be able to say my piece about it and how not all veterans are troubled,” said Schumacher, who served in Iraq in 2005. “If they don’t bring it up, and I don’t get the job, I’ll be wondering if they were thinking that the whole time.”
As the military community struggles to make sense of another base shooting, veterans are also left wondering whether this latest tragedy will again stoke misconceptions about their combat experience and post-war mental health.
Since Spc. Ivan Lopez killed himself and three others Wednesday, much of the speculation about his motives have centered on his four-month deployment to Iraq in 2011, his bouts of depression and anxiety, and the possibility he had post-traumatic stress disorder.
But veterans advocates are rushing forward to fight the “Rambo narrative” that has followed high-profile military tragedies in the past, saying too often the grim guessing games end up stereotyping all veterans, and scaring many away from seeking mental health help.
Little is known about the demons haunting Lopez, and whether what triggered violence had any connection to his military background.
On Thursday, Army Secretary John McHugh said the soldier was under the care of a psychiatrist, but had not been diagnosed with PTSD or seen as a threat. Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Mark Milley told reporters Lopez likely had “an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition” that played a role in the attack.
Officials from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America warned that “correlation does not imply causation” and “in moments like this, there is a tendency by some to paint a broad brush across the entire veterans community.”
Dr. Paula Schnurr, acting executive director of the Veterans Affairs Department’s National Center for PTSD, said even though medical studies have shown that veterans suffering from the disorder show little inclination toward violence, the public perception of angry veterans persists.
“We see so many misconceptions out there,” she said. “The fact is that the majority of veterans don’t have PTSD … and not all (post-war) adjustment problems are worrisome disorders.”
Most troubling to Schnurr is the reality of veterans shunning mental health assistance for any problem — depression, sleeplessness, substance abuse — because they fear the stigma associated with treatment.
Dave Warden, a Marine Corps veteran who has PTSD and traumatic brain injury from a 2010 roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan, said the “will they understand” question has been a constant concern since he left the military.
“Everybody defaults to what they think a veteran is, and it’s a struggle to convince them that’s not something violent,” the 25-year-old said. “There’s a certain stigmatism about veterans, and especially combat-hardened veterans, that is difficult to overcome.”
He now works in the financial sector, and assists with veterans hiring efforts. Explaining military jobs and leadership skills to civilian colleagues is a challenge, but an achievable goal. Erasing their unspoken fears about lingering mental health issues is much more difficult.
Drew Scatizzi, a 24-year-old Marine Corps veteran living in Florida, said the angry veteran stereotype has been a constant obstacle for him in the workplace.
When he talked about sleeping problems at one job, a co-worker asked if he was going to come in and shoot up the office. A job interview at a local bank included probing questions about his “most stressful moments” during overseas combat tours.
“I almost feel like you have to be apologetic about veterans,” he said. “The baseline is to assume everyone is damaged.”
Scatizzi just landed a new job as a research assistant. “Of course, my interviewer was a veteran, so that helped a lot.”
Schumacher, who lives in Texas, has already practiced his pitch should the Fort Hood tragedy or violent stereotypes arise in his interview. He wants to talk about the time he spent in college as a scholar with the Pat Tillman Foundation, talking to nonveteran students to help correct misconceptions about his experience and his own readjustment problems.
“The real trouble is when they are thinking about it but don’t give me a chance to rebut,” he said.
For more information, visit http://www.ptsd.va.gov/PTSD/.