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PTSD and police: Hiring and retaining war veterans in our ranks

Ensure that your PD doesn’t fall prey to sensationalist and politicized reporting on PTSD by anti-war media, which otherwise may influence hiring decisions in risk-averse departments

As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, veterans will leave the service and begin a job search in an economy that remains fragile. Private sector job growth has been poor, and communities throughout the country have found it difficult to maintain even some of the most basic services.

Veterans looking for work may be disappointed in their prospects.

A number of veterans will, like some Vietnam veterans a generation earlier, see law enforcement as a comfortable complement to their military service.

Avoiding ‘Liability Avoidance’
With reports suggesting a high number of returning veterans suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), many departments may shy from hiring a veteran that they assume may pose a mental health risk despite encouragement from Washington.

In today’s litigious society, law enforcement leaders have made liability avoidance into a legal science and an administrative art. Often spurred by insurance providers, even small departments have extensive policy manuals in an effort to shape officer behavior and manage risk.

Though told that the procedures are in place to protect the officers, only the most naive would believe that their protection is more important than protecting the department and municipality from litigation.

Stories about veterans and PTSD have flooded the popular online and print media. In this culture, hiring a new officer (or allowing an officer to return to duty after deployment) appears superficially to be a questionable management choice.

Though discriminating against veterans with reported PTSD may not be the norm, it’s difficult to gauge the real reason when a veteran learns he or she did not meet a department’s hiring standard after receiving a notoriously vague rejection letter.

Much of the critical reporting on PTSD has likely been an attempt to politicize the issue of veteran mental health to meet the anti-war narrative of advocacy mental health workers and journalists. Unfortunately, such sensationalist reporting may influence hiring decisions in risk-averse departments.

Competing and Conflicting Statistics
The number of veterans who have suffered from PTSD has appeared staggering with reports that nearly 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans treated at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals have been diagnosed with PTSD. These veterans are reportedly depressed, feel isolated and detached, and contain a seething rage underneath that can result in unforeseen violence.

Others maintain that U.S. soldier-suicides have skyrocketed while others have argued that there is a “direct correlation” between PTSD and criminal behavior, to include being either a perpetrator or victim of sexual assault.

The problem has been that PTSD is an especially complicated disability to address. According to a recent article in The Economist, “[t]hose who were injured in earlier wars typically received compensation for at most a handful of problems; today’s veterans often report 10 or more issues each.”

To make matters worse, studies that the press claims are definitive are, in fact, less than accurate measurements of predictive behavior.

A little mature reflection and historical insight could help inform both the press and law enforcement hiring officials. Dr. Eric Dean, Jr’s Shook Over Hell would be an excellent place to start.

Few from either side of the political spectrum — or veterans themselves, for that matter — may like what Dr. Dean has to say. But his research into both U.S. Civil War and Vietnam Veteran mental health issues has provided unique insights into the problem of how the government, society, and the mental health community have mishandled PTSD.

Dr. Dean castigated mental health practitioners who popularized PTSD diagnosis in returning Vietnam veterans. Popular myth often portrayed Vietnam-era veterans as a cohort of unemployed, drug-addled, violent psychopaths who suffered under monumental suicide rates and subsisted as best they could in an isolated criminal subculture, forgotten by family, friends, and the government they served. Sound familiar?

Dr. Dean noted that the mental health industry has not adequately defined PTSD and its so-called discovery was more a political statement against the Vietnam War than a scientific breakthrough.

He wrote that “PTSD, born in an era of vehement antiwar sentiment, cast its net widely over many aspects of human behavior that had never before been considered a ‘mental illness’” and wrongly labeled normal reactions to violence a mental health problem.

Not only were anti-war mental health providers responsible for much of this trend, anti-war members of the press were among the first to make the conclusions available to a wider audience.

For Dr. Dean, Vietnam veterans have also borne part of the blame. Many became aware that they would get preferential medical treatment and receive other benefits as a result of their disability and helped perpetuate the myth of the veteran as victim. Dr. Dean did not claim there had been a conspiracy, but events certainly conspired in a variety of ways to create the myth.

Dr. Dean has not been the only one to recognize the politics of mental health. Ben Shephard’s A War of Nerves has drawn similar conclusions.

He wrote about a “complex tale” where some cheer a group of victims that “fought for their rights” while others see the “incursion of politics into medicine, the hijacking of traditional values by a small minority of activists, [and] the elevation of the pathological into the mainstream.”

The Myth and Reality of PTSD
Police hiring authorities should keep in mind the myth and reality of PTSD, and, in some instances, their legal obligation not to discriminate against applicants or returning police officers for their service.

For their part, returning veterans should carefully consider whether they should apply for a PTSD disability rating and normalize the practice.

Though some veterans need psychological help, Vietnam’s unfortunate legacy has cast a stigma over all veterans. This could create a class of employment pariahs, which is especially unfortunate when military veterans’ skills, experience, and professionalism could serve their communities as first responders.

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army’s Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.