Sunday, January 27, 2008

Opening the ugly box

Not since Viet Nam have defendants in murders committed in the United States used the post traumatic stress disorder defence. Now, a US judge has included combat stress as a mitigating factor when passing sentence on a convicted murderer in South Dakota.
When it came time to sentence James Allen Gregg for his conviction on murder charges, the judge in South Dakota took a moment to reflect on the defendant as an Iraq combat veteran who suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. “This is a terrible case, as all here have observed,” said Judge Charles B. Kornmann of United States District Court. “Obviously not all the casualties coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan come home in body bags.”

Judge Kornmann noted that Mr. Gregg, a fresh-faced young man who grew up on a cattle ranch, led “an exemplary life until that day, that terrible morning.” With no criminal record or psychiatric history, Mr. Gregg had started unraveling in Iraq, growing disillusioned with the war and volunteering for dangerous missions in the hope of getting killed, he testified.

This was supposed to have been long past. It was to have died with the veterans of the Viet Nam war. Remember, Iraq was only supposed to last a few weeks.

Born during the Vietnam War era, the combat version of what became known as the PTSD defense is being dusted off for a new generation of war veterans.

“I’m seeing it all the time now,” said David P. Sheldon, a civilian lawyer in Washington who represents military personnel. “And I will not be surprised to see this resonate as a consistent theme over the next few decades when people will be committing crimes after suffering repeated traumas in Iraq.”

California has updated a law, written five years after the end of US involvement in Viet Nam, which permits judges to divert offenders with Iraq or Afghanistan service to treatment instead of jail. Although only for lesser offences, it is an acknowledgment that combat stress is real and has a lasting effect on many individuals.

“I see these stickers that people have on their vehicles saying, ‘Support the troops,’ ” Judge Kornmann said. “I don’t see much support for the troops as years go on when these people come back injured and maimed.”
A millenniums old problem. Douglas MacArthur did no favours to returning combatants when he said, "Old soldiers fade away."

Maybe they do, but there is likely to be a horribly disturbed life between the date of discharge and the final fading away.

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