New York Times military correspondent Dave Philipps filed a useful story Friday lamenting the fact of military veterans "Coming Home to Damaging Stereotypes." Philipps focused on disabled veteran Chris Marvin, who said that after coming home he wanted a purpose in life, not charity, and was critical of how returning veterans were portrayed on television and in movies. But the Times skipped its own gross contribution to the stereotype: A context-free 2008 article that smeared returning veterans as troubled killers.
Chris Marvin began to believe veterans might have an image problem when he went out to his mailbox one morning and found a check from a wounded veterans charity for $500.....
To Mr. Marvin, he was being stereotyped by what he believes has become the dominant image of veterans on television and in Hollywood today: the “broken hero,” as he puts it, “who once did incredible things but is now forever damaged and in need of help.”
Mr. Marvin asserts that film portrayals of veterans tend toward the extremes: John Rambo in “First Blood” (1982), a former Special Forces soldier who terrorizes the authorities in a small Washington town, or Staff Sgt. William James in “The Hurt Locker” (2008), a battle-hardened bomb technician unable to readjust to civilian society after the horrors of war.
Television has not been much better, he said, often depicting veterans as berserk because of post-traumatic stress disorder or as emotionally shaky and struggling with drugs and alcohol.
The portrayals may color the public’s perceptions, causing people to think that veterans are more likely to be unemployed and to commit suicide than their civilian peers, which Mr. Marvin insists is not true.
A number of veterans groups say that some employers are afraid to hire veterans because they fear they could become violent, perhaps as a result of portrayals in the media...
A related Philipps' article employed Marvin to pick and pan media portrayals of veterans in the media: "Veterans Give Thumbs Up, or Down, to On-Screen Portrayals."
That's all well and good. But while the Times criticized other media outlets for unfair stereotypes of violent veterans, one close-to-home example of egregiously biased media characterization of returning veterans went totally ignored: A long, notoriously inflammatory Sunday front-page New York Times story from January 2008, "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles," in which the paper smeared veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as killers on "a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak." The international edition took that irresponsible phrase for the headline: "Iraq veterans leave a trail of death and heartbreak in U.S."
Here's what reporters Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez found:
The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment -- along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems -- appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.
Three-quarters of these veterans were still in the military at the time of the killing. More than half the killings involved guns, and the rest were stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bathtub drownings. Twenty-five offenders faced murder, manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving.
It was up to bloggers to take the basic journalistic step of putting those numbers in context, as opposed to throwing out a single useless data point – a step the alleged journalists at the Times didn't bother doing. Here was John Hinderaker at Powerline:
As of 2005, the homicide rate for Americans aged 18-24, the cohort into which most soldiers fall, was around 27 per 100,000. (The rate for men in that age range would be much higher, of course, since men commit around 88% of homicides. But since most soldiers are also men, I gave civilians the benefit of the doubt and considered gender a wash.)
Next we need to know how many servicemen have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. A definitive number is no doubt available, but the only hard figure I've seen is that as of last October, more than 500,000 U.S. Army personnel had served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Other sources peg the total number of personnel from all branches of the military who have served in the two theaters much higher, e.g. 750,000, 650,000 as of February 2007, or 1,280,000. For the sake of argument, let's say that 700,000 soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors have returned to the U.S. from service in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Do the math: the 121 alleged instances of homicide identified by the Times, out of a population of 700,000, works out to a rate of 17 per 100,000-quite a bit lower than the overall national rate of around 27.
The New York Post's military correspondent Ralph Peters also did some crunching:
...to match the homicide rate of their [nonmilitary] peers, our troops would've had to come home and commit about 150 murders a year, for a total of 700 to 750 murders between 2003 and the end of 2007" -- six times the number the Times cited."
As MRC argued at the time, "Can one imagine the Times just spouting out a raw number of murders committed by illegal immigrants without context?"