Tragic news broke yesterday from the community near Fort Drum, New York, after an active duty U.S. Army soldier allegedly shot and killed his wife and responding New York State Trooper Joel Davis.
The soldier, Staff Sergeant Justin Dean Walters, is assigned to a rifle company in a Brigade Combat Team at Fort Drum. He was arrested late Sunday night after surrendering without a fight to police after shooting Trooper Davis in his driveway.
Walters’ wife Nichole was pronounced dead at the scene, and Davis died of his wounds an hour after being shot. According to his initial appearance in court, Walters was charged with first and second-degree murder.
Details are scant this early after incidents like these, and Walters has reportedly denied understanding his involvement in the killings. But what has already emerged in some media reports is the fact that Walters, an infantryman, has served two year-long deployments to Afghanistan, once in 2009, and again in 2012. He also was reportedly arrested while in ninth grade for plotting with a fellow classmate to assemble a “kill list” of people they intended to murder, and subsequently commit suicide shortly afterwards. It appears possible that Walters had troubling mental health issues long before ever becoming a member of the Army or serving in combat, yet his combat experience is already being cited as some sort of warning sign.
What is troubling for veterans in America today is how quickly prior military service, even with no actual combat experience, is brought up almost instantly any time a tragedy such as this one occurs. The near-24/7 coverage in the media of military service since September 11th—simultaneously lionizing veterans for their bravery and pitying them as victims—has permeated our collective understanding and treatment of veterans.
A shocking poll was released last year by the Bush Institute, which showed that 40% of Americans believe that over half of veterans have mental health issues. The actual number is far smaller, but this perception of the damaged veteran is ingrained in our psyche.
The Army will conduct their own internal investigation, as members of the public and media will begin to probe the background of Sergeant Walters to try to understand this senseless act. Did the unit not know he had mental health issues? That he was prone to violence? How could he be left with firearms? All of these questions will be asked, as if the unit was willfully ignoring a murderous threat in their midst.
What people often do not understand is that the military already has an intrusive role in soldiers’ lives. Leaders will personally visit the homes of subordinates to ensure they are living well, and are expected to intimately know the personal details of a subordinate’s home life. If a soldier wants to take a weekend trip, a detailed plan for the weekend must be submitted to and approved by their leadership before the trip is authorized. Some leaders will mandate counseling before major financial decisions like buying a car or home. These steps are in an effort to put the soldier and their family first.
For better or for worse, Sergeant Walters’ leadership will now come under a microscope. Tough questions will be asked. Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with this process, as I was also a leader who had a subordinate commit an egregious crime while under my command. It is a profoundly difficult time as the unit copes with a tragedy while supporting an ongoing investigation.
But we must also acknowledge a reality of our armed forces. There are probably thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen right now who are exhibiting all the same signs as Sergeant Walters was, leading up to this tragedy. Meaning no signs at all, or some so common among soldiers that if the military were to somehow “pre-crime” these individuals like “Minority Report,” our day-to-day operations would come to a grinding halt. I am not advocating a do-nothing approach, but we must be more realistic about what we can expect to prevent, and hold off on assigning blame in a knee-jerk reaction.
More importantly, we must also stop associating combat experience with the ‘broken veteran’ narrative. The vast majority of veterans do not exhibit any signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and among those who do, according to the VA, there is no causal link between PTSD and homicide.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army