US soldiers are heroes, not terrorists

Homeland Security's warning is unjustified.

The Department of Homeland Security recently declared that American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are at risk of becoming domestic terrorists. While no other free country believes that US military personnel are terrorists, Washington is keeping a close eye on them. The FBI recently launched an investigative program, along with the Department of Defense, called "Vigilant Eagle," to share information about Iraq and Afghanistan war vets who may have a propensity toward domestic terrorism.

The Homeland Security report is conspicuously light on evidence to back up its shocking claim. Lacking hard data, the report relies on words like "may," "potential," and "no specific information" to propel its argument. Its leading point seems to be that "skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat" somehow make vets likely to attack a country they risked their lives to defend.

So how does the report get from Point A to Point B? How does being a soldier put one on the path to becoming a domestic terrorist? The answer is clear and simple: It doesn't.

The war on terror has been going on for nearly eight years. Hundreds of thousands of troops have served in uniform since 9/11. Yet, the report finds not a single incident of an Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran becoming a domestic terrorist – not one.

The New York Times made similar allegations in a January 2008 article, in which it reported that 121 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were charged with some form of homicide after returning from the war. But the devil was in the details. During that same period, the military discharged nearly 750,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, which means that only .016 percent of them went on to commit a homicide; 99.984 percent of them did not [Editor's note: The original version miscalculated the percentage of US veterans not charged with homicide.].

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, 26.5 of every 100,000 white males between 18 and 24 commit homicide per year. The statistic for Iraq and Afghanistan war vets is much lower. Only about 16 per 100,000 committed (or were charged with committing) homicide. In the end, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans appear to be significantly less likely than the average American male to commit a homicide – much less to become a terrorist.

We know of no incident where an Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran has become a domestic terrorist. In fact, the only terrorist incident involving an American soldier occurred in 2003, when Muslim Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar threw a live hand grenade into another tent where his fellow soldiers were sleeping. Two soldiers were killed; 14 others were injured.

The Homeland Security report failed to mention the incident involving Akbar. But it made much of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. True, McVeigh served one tour in the military. But he was also an agnostic computer techie, an obsessive gambler, and a former security guard. Why did the report single out his military service? In reality, the most meaningful contribution McVeigh ever made was as a soldier. He earned the Bronze Star during Operation Desert Storm and saved another soldier's life. We don't know why McVeigh became a terrorist, or whether his military service was even a contributing factor. In any event, using an isolated incident of one veteran's act from nearly two decades ago to attack and label today's war veterans is disingenuous and downright wrong.

Truth be told, veterans are more likely to become members of Congress than they are to become terrorists. In recent years, dozens of them hit the campaign trail and ran for Congress. Many were successful.

It is true that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face an uphill battle in civilian life. Many of them have served multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan fighting terrorists who refuse to follow the laws of war. Some soldiers have watched their friends die. Others come home with permanent disabilities, including post- traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Despite all this, they love their country.

So instead of flagging veterans as potential terrorists, the government should treat them as the heroes they are by ensuring that those wounded in combat or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder receive the disability benefits they've earned.

Kyndra Rotunda is a professor of law at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and director of the AMVETs clinic. She is also a former Army JAG Officer (Major) and author of "Honor Bound: Inside the Guantanamo Trials."

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