Guns, PTSD, Mental Illness and a Post-Navy Yard World

Should we have seen Aaron Alexis coming? Will cuts to veterans benefits ensure there will be another?

As the theories about what set Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis on his homicidal tear pile up, old policy clashes are re-emerging. Gun control advocates are quick to offer assorted “we-told-you-so” arguments, and for good reason. But as fevered as the uproar over guns is the conversation on mental health.

Once details emerged that Alexis had a long post-9/11 history of mental issues, the spigot of outrage flowed. How could a 34-year-old disturbed Navy veteran with a Molotov cocktail of “anger management” and firearms episodes get a security clearance to the facility overseeing Naval operations worldwide? Here in D.C., getting security clearance for a cushy federal gig is like finding gold. You can’t even get one if you have bad credit. So, how did Alexis slip through the cracks?

As is the case with most outrage-based Washington policy discourse, lawmakers will push for stringent security clearance limits on those with mental health issues. The problem, however, is that such an approach will more than likely result in two thirds of the population being actively screened out of many lucrative federal employment opportunities.

How will we define mental illness in the post-Navy Yard world?

But, in the case of Alexis, that debate is off point. So too is the empty notion that security clearance background checks have somehow lost their teeth due to sequestration budget cuts.

Smart people have been paying close attention to the mental health of veterans long before the current budget battles, with many quietly worried about soldiers returning home after being scarred on the frontlines. While Alexis hadn’t served in Afghanistan or Iraq, he did—in some respects—serve on the very first battlefield of the global, multi-front War on Terrorism.

What happens when trained, combat-ready veterans returning from war have trouble adjusting to a non-combat routine? Is the federal government ready for it? Some have even asked if ObamaCare is ready for it as healthcare exchanges reshape the healthcare service landscape.

Here’s where budget-based questions about federal programs for veterans come into play.  Many pro-defense lawmakers in Congress are eager to keep weapons programs in their districts alive, but they’re slow on shutting down a sequestration virus that will soon eat into veteran benefits.

Beyond the discussion of combat trauma and soldier re-assimilation (which most do very well) is the fact that we saw Alexis, or someone like him, coming. The headline-grabbing rise of sexual assaults in the armed forces points to something very dark and unresolved in the larger military mindset. And recent studies have made disturbing correlations between the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their likelihood of being involved in criminal or violent behavior. Other studies show nearly half of all PTSD-afflicted veterans commit some form of domestic violence against their partners or spouses.

While deeply tragic, we can’t act as if Alexis was an anomaly. There were numerous signs along the way, with many people opting not to do a thing. Repeatedly, law enforcement seemed to turn a blind eye to dealing with the disturbed veteran and, to average folks watching with outrage, it is baffling that he wasn’t incarcerated or institutionalized on some level. But this case is not as isolated as you think. As discomforting as it may seem, policymakers will need to seriously examine how law enforcement officers and courts treat veterans in contrast to how they treat average citizens, particularly in cases where clear violence is exhibited. Aaron Alexis was shown a bit too much leniency on his way to the Navy Yard.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is a regular contributor to The Philly Post, a veteran political strategist and Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine, the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and the weekly Washington Insider heard every Sunday at 9:50am ET on WDAS 105.3 FM.  Reach him via Twitter @charlesdellison.