In a long piece that ran this weekend, Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe tells the story of Robert Carlson, a soldier who, in 2012, having beaten his wife late at night during an alcohol-fueled argument, then fired numerous rounds from a pistol at police cars approaching his house.
Carlson was eventually sentenced to eight years in a military prison for what he did that night. Much of Jaffe’s piece is spent detailing mitigating circumstances for Carlson’s actions—in particular his multiple combat tours, his harrowing experiences during them, and a diagnosis of PTSD that his defense team made heavy use of during the trial. Writes Jaffe:
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That was July 2012. Now, two years later … Carlson wonders about the fairness of such a punishment. "I know I did wrong," he said recently from the detention facility at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.But is jail time appropriate for someone who, before he fired those shots, spent 16 months in Iraq, followed by 12 months in Iraq, followed by another 12 months in Afghanistan?
Emphasis mine. "Is jail time appropriate?" is a somewhat remarkable question, considering the nature of Carlson’s actions. More reasonable questions might include: what role should Carlson’s honorable combat service play in determining a punishment for his crime? (Some, surely.) In addition to confinement, should mental health services be available to him? (Most certainly.) Is eight years too harsh, considering that no one actually got shot? (Maybe. His wife certainly got beat up, though.)
But the question on which Jaffe pivots into the body of his piece is none of these. Rather, it is whether any jail time at all should apply to this soldier, inasmuch as he has been in combat and appears to bear all the hallmarks of a man suffering from PTSD.
Such a line of reasoning is remarkably condescending to veterans—including veterans with PTSD—the vast, overwhelming majority of whom neither beat their spouses nor shoot at police cars. Jaffe, of course, briefly clears his throat with a similar observation eight paragraphs into the article, before going on to focus on Carlson’s case.
The unsubtle premise of the article is that combat veterans aren’t really responsible for their actions because they have been perverted into violent, uncontrollable brutes by their military service. This will be news to all of those veterans living their lives as responsible members of their communities, most of whom would say that, rather than having been perverted by their service, they have been improved by it.
A man like Carlson absolutely deserves compassion. Ideally, he would have received more of it before his life went completely off the rails and he became a danger to those he was supposed to protect. But to suggest that he is not responsible for his actions does a disservice to veterans, who, whatever they need, don’t need the condescending pity of a Washington Post reporter.