On this Memorial Day 2017, I remember Manny Babbitt, a Vietnam veteran who was executed by the state of California on May 3, 1999. Pictured here is Manny's brother, Bill, who travels and tells his brother's story. You can watch the award-winning documentary about Bill and Manny Babbitt, The Last Day of Freedom, on Netflix, or read about their story in the seventh chapter of Executing Grace (pp. 164-168).
Sadly, Manny's story isn't an anomaly. A veteran returns home suffering from PTSD, doesn't receive the needed medical and psychological care, ends up committing a violent crime, and is sentenced to death.
On this Memorial Day 2017, I think of two recent reports that remind us that caring about veterans looks like (among other things) a renewed commitment to both ending the death penalty and addressing America's history and present of systemic racism. (And the death penalty and racism have a sordid and complex relationship. Check out Shane Claiborne's chapter in Executing Grace on race, the death penalty, and lynchings, or watch him discuss it here.)
The first report is from the Death Penalty Information Center called Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty. You can read the whole report for yourself, but this excerpt from the Executive Summary on page 3 is apt:
PTSD has affected an enormous number of veterans returning from combat zones. Over 800,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD. At least 175,000 veterans of Operation Desert Storm were affected by "Gulf War Illness," which has been linked to brain cancer and other mental deficits. Over 300,000 veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have PTSD. In one study, only about half had received treatment in the prior year.
Even with these mental wounds and lifetime disabilities, the overwhelming majority of veterans do not commit violent crime. Many have been helped, and PTSD is now formally recognized in the medical community as a serious illness. But for those who have crossed an indefinable line and have been charged with capital murder, compassion and understanding seem to disappear. Although a definitive count has yet to be made, approximately 300 veterans are on death row today, and many others have already been executed.
Perhaps even more surprising, when many of these veterans faced death penalty trials, their service and related illnesses were barely touched on as their lives were being weighed by judges and juries. Defense attorneys failed to investigate this critical area of mitigation; prosecutors dismissed, or even belittled, their claims of mental trauma from the war; judges discounted such evidence on appeal; and governors passed on their opportunity to bestow the country's mercy. In older cases, some of that dismissiveness might be attributed to ignorance about PTSD and related problems. But many of those death sentences still stand today when the country knows better.
This first report reminds us that inadequate care for military veterans sometimes leads to tragic and preventable violence, both the violence that might have been prevented if the veteran's PTSD had been well-addressed, and unequivocally preventable violence of the state against the veteran.
Another report, published by the Equal Justice Initiative, reminds us that returning black veterans in particular have not just been inadequately cared for, but have been the targets of violence and racial terror. You can read Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans online or in PDF, but Bryan Stevenson's opening remarks are worth quoting:
The end of the Civil War marked a new era of racial terror and violence directed at black people in the United States that has not been adequately acknowledged or addressed in this country. Following emancipation in 1865, thousands of freed black men, women, and children were killed by white mobs, former slave owners, and members of the Confederacy who were unwilling to accept the anticipated end of slavery and racial subordination. The violent response to freedom for former slaves was followed by decades of racial terror lynchings and targeted violence designed to sustain white supremacy and racial hierarchy.
No one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans who had proven their valor and courage as soldiers during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Because of their military service, black veterans were seen as a particular threat to Jim Crow and racial subordination. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, threatened, abused, or lynched following military service.
The disproportionate abuse and assaults against black veterans have never been fully acknowledged. This report highlights the particular challenges endured by black veterans in the hope that our nation can better confront the legacy of this violence and terror. No community is more deserving of recognition and acknowledgment than those black men and women veterans who bravely risked their lives to defend this country’s freedom only to have their own freedom denied and threatened because of racial bigotry.