DALLAS — When John Roberts heard that a fellow former Marine, who said he had post-traumatic stress disorder, was charged with fatally shooting two men, he knew how much the tragedy could distort the public’s perception toward veterans with PTSD.
“It absolutely scared the hell out of me,” said Roberts, executive vice president of the Wounded Warrior Project. “The public sees something like this and suddenly they think all these veterans are likely to go postal” and become violent.
Saturday’s slayings of Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL known as America’s deadliest sniper, and his neighbor Chad Littlefield at an Erath County, Texas, gun range have prompted mental health experts and military veterans to caution the public against jumping to conclusions about those with PTSD.
There is no strong evidence that someone with PTSD is “going to be violent toward anybody,” said Dr. John Hart, a national expert on PTSD and the medical science director at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas. “I wouldn’t have the general public believe they’re more prone to violent behavior toward others.”
Police identified the suspect as Eddie Ray Routh, 25, a veteran who served in Iraq and Haiti. He may have gone to the range with Kyle as a form of recreational therapy. After an earlier encounter with Lancaster police in September, Routh told officers that he suffered from PTSD. But Routh’s court-appointed attorney would not confirm that his client has the disorder.
Routh faces two charges of capital murder in the deaths of Kyle, 38, and Littlefield, 35, at the shooting range about 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth.
Up to 20 percent of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, according to a study by the RAND Corp. Yet only a little over half of those have sought treatment, the study reported. Many cite the stigma attached to mental illness for not seeking treatment.
PTSD can range from mild to severe, with symptoms that include anxiety, fear and hypervigilance, Hart said. Veterans can experience flashbacks to a traumatic event triggered by something as trivial as the sound of a soda can being opened, the backfire of an engine or even a whiff of smoke.
People with PTSD try to avoid situations that trigger anxiety, including crowded places such as supermarkets and malls, Hart said. But avoidance of social situations can lead to isolation and depression. It’s not uncommon for people with PTSD to self-medicate with alcohol or other chemical substances, he said.
“It’s an anxiety disorder, a response to a life-threatening event, or series of traumatic events, that happens to an individual,” said Hart. He emphasized that the symptoms are not just temporary.
“If after three months or so you still have symptoms, that would be a disorder,” he said.
Treatment typically consists of medication and counseling. At the Center for Brain Health, patients receive cognitive processing therapy, which teaches them new ways to handle distressing thoughts.
But many veterans groups said that group events, often involving recreational activities, are also important for treating PTSD.
Roberts, 48, served in the Marine Corps for almost 15 years. He received a medical discharge after he was severely injured in a helicopter crash in Somalia in 1992. During his long recovery from his injuries, which included post-traumatic stress, Roberts said he missed the camaraderie and emotional bonds he felt with his fellow service members.
That’s why the Wounded Warrior Project and many other organizations take veterans on fishing and hunting trips as well as bicycle rides.
Veterans with PTSD can find it hard to relate to civilians and talk about their feelings with friends and family.
“They get isolated when they’re home,” Roberts said. “And that’s usually one of the symptoms of PTSD is severe isolation.” The trips organized by the Wounded Warrior Project are a way of overcoming that isolation. “Sometimes,” he said, “just being around other warriors is helpful.”
Since 2007, Wounded Warriors has used outdoor recreational retreats to help treat combat stress. Activities include horseback riding, fishing, kayaking and skeet shooting.
Roberts said it’s hard to know exactly what happened when Kyle brought Routh to a gun range in Erath County. But, Roberts said, he didn’t see any problem with taking veterans with PTSD to events involving weapons.
“We’ve done hunting events, shooting events, fishing events. The guys love it — they love being in that environment,” he said. “The key is being around other warriors and being in an environment where you feel safe to talk about what you’re dealing with.”
Mike Rials, 28, of Dallas did three combat tours with the Marines. Assigned to the infantry, he was just 19 when he deployed to Iraq in 2004. He fought in Fallujah and Haditha, two major hot spots in Iraq.
When he returned home, Rials suffered from anxiety and depression. He hated crowds and went out as little as possible. Eventually, he enrolled at the University of Texas at Dallas, got involved with the school’s veterans center and began getting treatment for PTSD at the university’s Center for Brain Health.
He now works as an outreach coordinator at the Center for Brain Health. His job is to help find recent war veterans in need of treatment for mental health issues.
Veterans with PTSD are less likely to harm others than themselves — by engaging in addictive behaviors like heavy drinking and substance abuse, he said. When he heard about Saturday’s killings, he felt overwhelming sadness for the families of the victims and a twinge of regret. He wished he could have met the accused gunman in time to get him help.
“If I had known (Routh),” Rials said, “I would have tried to reach out to him.”