Police in Texas have charged Eddie Ray Routh, a 25-year-old U.S. Marine reservist, with capital murder in the shooting deaths of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield. Arrest records in this case report that Routh had been twice taken to a mental hospital in recent months, and that he had told police he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). From this report it is unclear whether a doctor had formally diagnosed Routh with PTSD before he allegedly murdered Chris Kyle and his friend. The details of the incidents surrounding his hospitalizations and his military background seem to support that diagnosis, while also suggesting the presence of accompanying substance abuse issues. Reports have indicated that Kyle, a retired Navy SEAL and author of the book American Sniper, had taken Routh to a shooting range as a form of therapy. Apparently, Kyle brought military veterans to shooting ranges to bond with them as he sought to mentor them and help them heal from psychological issues associated with their military service. Routh's sister Laura Blevins alerted police when her brother told her he had committed the murders. The police then successfully apprehended Routh as he was driving Kyle's pickup truck.
NPR interviewed Todd Vance, who is an Iraq War vet. Vance coaches a mixed martial arts (MMA) group for veterans in San Diego. According to the NPR report interviewing Todd Vance:
...many veterans see hiking, hunting or shooting as a way to re-create their military experience, but without the danger. Vance, who's getting a degree in social work, has also received treatment for PTSD. Now, he says fighting in the gym helps him.
"Everybody deals with it differently," he says. "Somebody could look at me and say, 'You get punched in the face seven days a week — that seems like pretty risky behavior, as well.' But in reality, it's keeping me out of trouble."
Vance says what he does is a perfectly normal activity, and that it could even be used as a form of exposure therapy, one of the cognitive therapies known to help with PTSD. The idea is to help a patient remember traumatic events without re-experiencing the trauma.
"The big challenges here ... [are] what we know that works doesn't work for everyone," says Dr. Farris Tuma, with the National Institutes of Health. "And there's limited availability of the things we know do work."
Treatments include everything from virtual reality to yoga, and even spending time with dogs or horses. Doctors sometimes try other drugs, from antipsychotics to the recreational drug Ecstasy. Tuma just wishes he had evidence to say what helps and what hurts.
The Pentagon has financed a major study, due out next year, to assess all these treatments. Sandro Galea, the head of the epidemiology department at Columbia University, is leading the effort, and he says there's new funding, new understanding of PTSD, and new research on how the brain works.
"So there is a lot going on, and it is that depth of activity that makes me say I'm optimistic," Galea says. "There's a lot of effort invested by practitioners of all stripes to deliver PTSD care to those who need it."
Providing treatment for those with PTSD can be challenging and hazardous. Those with PTSD can have flashbacks and reactions triggered by any stimulus associated with the past trauma. Their "fight or flight" response can be reflexively set in motion and lead to a reaction that is inappropriate to the present situation. A veteran exposed to the sound of gunshots or the smell of gunpowder could suddenly react as though he is in the midst of combat and confronting enemy soldiers. With an altered perception of reality, one's friends could be perceived as the enemy. Using any form of exposure therapy is clearly something that would need to be done with great caution, by someone with experience and professional expertise. Since Chris Kyle was not a healing arts professional, his reported attempt to help his friend therapeutically by accompanying him to a shooting range seems misguided, though well-intentioned. Something that seems to help and soothe a number of people can turn out disastrous for someone else.
Controversy has erupted following a tweet from retired Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who stated "Chris Kyle's death seems to confirm that 'he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.' Treating PTSD at a gun range doesn't make sense." While many Americans would agree that bringing a mentally unstable person whose PTSD can be triggered by the sound of weapons to a shooting range is irrational and dangerous, some individuals have verbally denounced Ron Paul. There are many who have reported that veterans find shooting to be therapeutic or comforting. One veteran who reports being a friend of the murdered Kyle has even implied that Ron Paul is suggesting veterans deserve to be killed. Chris Kyle himself was being sued by former Governor, Navy SEAL, and present day conspiracy journalist Jesse Ventura for accusations Kyle had made about Ventura having contempt toward veterans and engaging in an altercation with Kyle. What is the deeper truth of these matters?
Clearly, those who have been in the military for long periods of time and done service in combat are likely to adapt to those conditions. Becoming accustomed to being in an adrenaline-charged, vigilant state and carrying out military actions could feel "normal" to many of these individuals. Just as drug addicts adapt to the presence of the drug in their bodies, people in stressful situations can adapt to the presence of the situation and the internal stress state that occurs, with the associated stress hormones and body chemistry. Many veterans have difficulty adjusting to civilian life because the skills and reactions they developed in the military are contradictory to healthy functioning in other environments, such as the family setting, school, or workplace. In order to function well in civilian life, the military conditioning needs to be undone and their patterns of functioning need to adjust to peaceful civilian settings. This can involve major lifestyle changes and retraining oneself on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels. Treatments that have been found by practitoners and researchers to help heal stress and trauma include systematic desensitization, cognitive therapy, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, physical exercise, diet and nutritional changes, support groups, somatic/bodywork therapies, hypnotherapy, and energy-based treatments like qi gong, acupuncture, and reiki.
Going to a shooting range because it feels normal and familiar for a veteran may be temporarily comforting during the period of adjustment into civilian life, but ideally this situation would be used to help the veteran extinguish feelings of stress or anxiety related to the shooting situation - something which could be done more safely in a virtual reality simulation. Ideally, the individual would be weaned away from the inclination toward stressful states and any preoccupation with violent activities. Continuing to go to shooting ranges without adding any therapeutic interventions to help release an unhealthy attachment or addiction to that type of activity isn't truly treating the disorder - it may actually help perpetuate the disorder. It would be positive if veterans could fit gun ownership and shooting hobbies into their lives in a balanced way - clearly there are many who do so successfully.
However, there are also many veterans who have developed major psychological difficulties, and some end up using guns to carry out violence toward themselves or others. Anyone bringing a veteran with PTSD into an environment with guns would be wise to understand the dangers and apply considerable caution. Individuals such as Ron Paul and Jesse Ventura have been critical of U.S. foreign policy and military adventures due to their concern for the well-being of America's service members and citizens here and abroad, not out of contempt for soldiers or veterans (they are both military veterans themselves and Ron Paul was the Republican Presidential candidate in 2012 who received donations from more service members than any other candidate). There is great harm done to all involved when war occurs, as many families lose people they love and there are numerous physical and psychological wounds that occur. Seeking to build a world of peace and avoiding unnecessary violence and wars built upon false pretenses and deceptions seems like an approach that anyone who values humanity can respect.