Blaming the military for police shootings is too easy
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CLEVELAND-Never rush to judgment.

In the last two weeks, 8 police officers from Dallas and Baton Rouge have been massacred by two black men who both served their country in the military.

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One motive is clear from both individuals: race played a brutal role in their decisions to execute men who were charged to protect and serve their communities.

The military tie is less clear in playing a role in forming their decision to commit those heinous crimes. Yes, it is likely they made their weapon and ammo choice, acquired their marksmanship skills, and selected their firing positions from which to murder and wound law enforcement officers based on their training.

Even in basic Army and Marine training, you would learn the fundamentals of engaging targets from a covered and concealed position.

But it is too great a leap right now to assume they also acquired their hate and their mindset to commit a despicable crime from their service.

To do so would perpetuate an inaccurate, unfair, and damaging stereotype that is constantly playing in entertainment and the media and negatively impacts today’s veterans.

A quick glance at the veteran portrayal in “Orange is the New Black” series underscores that.

“I am not sure how much people realize what this stereotype is doing to my brothers and sisters out here in the civilian world,” said retired Major General Anthony Cucolo whose career spanned the battlefields in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq and concluded as Commandant of the Army War College.

“I work in higher education and engage in veterans issues; from the classroom to the job interview, this stereotype of the “damaged veteran who might ‘go off’ at any moment” has become a frequent bias,” he said.

Perpetuated by film, television and well-meaning help-groups seeking funds who show or talk about the validly neediest examples of our teammates, civilians who don’t know veterans assume they are all somehow ticking time bombs, suicidal, need to be handled with special care or wallowing in a self-medicated pity party.

Uninformed, unenlightened, narrow-minded and prejudiced professors and employers apply the stereotype to the young man or woman’s disadvantage.

The veteran is not hired “to deny the potential for workplace violence” and a student is not engaged because the professor isn’t sure how to deal with this older and more mature student with very unique life experiences. 

“Please understand, however, this is a generalization — accurate to a degree but not universal or absolute; there are many wonderful employers and savvy professors, but the trending is concerning, and the reinforcing of the stereotype is wholly unhelpful,” said Cucolo, who is currently a vice chancellor for leadership development and veterans’ affairs at the University of Texas.

“The better things to do would be to look at the entire individual human being, from their raising through their military service, with a detailed look at exactly what they did in the service,” he said.

True understanding of these men is complicated and takes time.

If we want to understand the "why," we must spend the time to see how they were raised, behavior prior to their military service, then, check to see what duty they had, where they served and if they have a negative service record.

The military recruits from society and works very hard to create stronger and more resilient citizens, who will be of great value to their communities upon the termination of their service. 

There have been brief periods in the past several decades when in order to make a recruiting quota, we lowered some standard — intelligence level, waived certain standards of fitness or conduct. And every time the military lowered standards, it reaped what it had sown. In a total force of over one million people, they see trending aberrant behavior, analyze it and make adjustments.

An example of this was the lowering of standards (not significant, but enough to increase the pool of recruits) from 2006–2008 in the Army in order to meet the demands of two theaters of war.

"We had many wonderful men and women enlist to get their lives on track, but the trend of types of indiscipline I saw could only be described this way: while we’ve always had a very small percentage of “bad” Soldiers whom you disciplined and discharged, the “bad” Soldiers were really bad," said Cucolo, “The small numbers of offenses that rose to courts martial level were for very serious offenses, higher numbers of more serious than in the past.”

It is very important to note that the Army recognized this, analyzed it, and then returned to higher standards.

It is not the first time this has happened. The early 1990’s is another example.

Additionally, let’s hold a mirror up to society as well as the armed forces.

Over the last decade, the magnificent generations of Americans enlisting in the armed forces have a trait that is trending upward: a lack of life coping skills. It has caused the military to adjust its training techniques and even create education (resiliency training) and additional duty positions (unit Master Resiliency Trainers).

“Some may scoff at this; I have seen great success in its application,” said Cucolo.

Something in our society has created folks who need more coaching on dealing with disappointment, rejection, failure, and change as well as social interaction.

Cucolo wonders what these two shooters were dealing with that drove them to act.

An average of 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and though many organizations, from the VA to private and public organizations are constantly improving, they need to do more to understand and treat post-traumatic stress and other behavioral impacts of combat service.

All veterans return from combat changed in some way, they all handle it differently; and they all handle transition out of the service differently, too.

They leave the community to which our identity is attached and go off alone.

Cucolo has spoken to countless transitioned veterans who went through some level of difficulty in transition, “Almost all have some feeling of loss, frustration and anger until they come to grips with their new identity and find another community of which to be a part,” he said.

 “The actions of the shooters; such behavior is the antithesis of the values and discipline that millions of other Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen take away from their time in service,” he said.

If anything, veterans feel as though we are kindred spirits to first responders they have the “home game” and the military has  the “away game”…lifestyle, family issues, the need for fitness, expertise, resilience and professionalism are similar in many ways.

“We identify with them and know that law enforcement is often a career of choice after serving in the military,” he said.

We also know that many of today’s law enforcement officers also serve in the Reserve and the National Guard – Cucolo himself served with numerous wonderful peace officers in Afghanistan and Iraq, from Michigan State Troopers to NYPD detectives who were also in one of the services’ reserve components.

“It is unfathomable to think that someone who wore the uniform and swore an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States would do this,” he said.

Military men and women all take pride in counting themselves among those who acted on a sense of responsibility to our country to preserve our way of life, defend the values of the Constitution and protect our people the armed forces and first responders are related by purpose and motivation said Cucolo.

“I guarantee you that inside most – if not all -- veterans is a feeling that these deaths are a family loss.” 

Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. Contact her at szito@tribweb.com.


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