Personal Tragedies Illuminate the Consequences of War: In Investigating Why Some Iraq War Veterans Become Homicidal, the New York Times Highlighted a Circumstance That No One Else Was Tracking

By Purdy, Matthew | Nieman Reports, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Personal Tragedies Illuminate the Consequences of War: In Investigating Why Some Iraq War Veterans Become Homicidal, the New York Times Highlighted a Circumstance That No One Else Was Tracking


Purdy, Matthew, Nieman Reports


Blinded and disabled on the 54th day of the war in Iraq, Sam Ross returned home to a rousing parade that outdid anything his small, depressed hometown in Appalachia had ever seen. "Sam's parade put Dunbar on the map," his grandfather said.

But three years later, Ross had deteriorated into an angry and addicted Army veteran. One night, in a rage after an argument with relatives, Ross set fire to the family trailer. No one in the trailer was hurt but, when an assistant fire chief showed up, Ross fought with him and then threatened a state trooper with his prosthetic leg. He tried to hang himself in jail and was transferred to a state psychiatric hospital with severe symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I came home a hero, and now I'm a bum," he told New York Times reporter Deborah Sontag, who interviewed Ross at the state hospital last year.

By the time the trauma of Ross's military service had mutated into a criminal ease, he had long since vanished from the Pentagon's radar screen. The unraveling of Sam Ross's life was a local story and a matter for local law enforcement. When the toll of the war was added up in Washington or in the national media, Sam Ross's shattered life was nowhere to be found.

The heart-wrenching tale of Sam Ross prompted us to start looking into how many other war veterans had ended up in trouble with the law, reporting that led to a series of stories in the Times entitled "War Torn." Initially, we imagined that Ross's situation was extreme. We expected to find mostly eases involving veterans charged with driving under the influence or other garden-variety offenses. But one after the other, we kept discovering cases in which an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran had taken a life in this country on their return from war.

We found 121 cases of veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan charged with homicides by the time we began publishing our stories in January, and we have learned of more cases since then. We tried to get records of these offenses from the Pentagon but, since the military only handles criminal acts committed on its bases, it was aware of few of these cases. The Justice Department did not keep track of these cases; neither did the FBI nor the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The more Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez delved into the subject and into the individual cases, the more it was apparent that these homicides were yet another cost of war that neither Pentagon officials nor anyone else had counted.

Worse yet, we knew that the killings were the tip of a much larger phenomenon that has not been fully appreciated. In the first story of our series we told readers that "clearly, committing homicide is an extreme manifestation of dysfunction for returning veterans, many of whom struggle in quieter ways, with crumbling marriages, mounting debt, deepening alcohol dependence, or more-minor tangles with the law."

It was also clear from our reporting about psychological injuries, and from a review of the long history of veterans returning from war, that we were wandering into territory that much of the military world considers taboo.

Shattered Lives

In examining the homicides, we found that often the psychological damage had not been detected during the cursory examination that is given to service men and women upon their return from combat. Or if their injuries had been diagnosed, the treatment had been woefully inadequate. The result was that those injuries were often dealt with only after it was too late.

Matthew Sepi, who at age 20 was already an Iraq combat veteran, shot two suspected gang members who threatened him late one summer night in 2005 as he left a 7-Eleven in a tough Las Vegas neighborhood. He had gone there to buy beer, his drug of choice to chase away the memories of combat, and for safety he had tucked an assault weapon beneath his trench coat.

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Personal Tragedies Illuminate the Consequences of War: In Investigating Why Some Iraq War Veterans Become Homicidal, the New York Times Highlighted a Circumstance That No One Else Was Tracking
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