Defending Courts-Martial & Administrative Separations

Published February 2011 Bar Bulletin

A PTSD Primer:
When Good Soldiers Do Bad Things

By Stephen H. Carpenter, Jr.

“It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror... Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror.”
—Colonel Walter Kurz, “Apocalypse Now”

Soldiers afflicted with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may seek to befriend horrors witnessed in Afghanistan by relying upon the support of loved ones, faith, therapists, drugs and alcohol.1 But when these coping mechanisms fail, some soldiers may violently lash out and commit crimes triggered by “intense fear, helplessness, or horror.”2

Arguably, the emotional impact of PTSD may be so profound that, when presented to a military judge or jury, it might significantly mitigate, extenuate or, in the most severe cases, completely exonerate criminal conduct. Indeed, the law has begun to now recognize the significance of PTSD and its potential role in the courtroom. Most notably, the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned a murder conviction because a lawyer failed to investigate his client’s PTSD caused by service in the Korean War.3

More than 2 million service members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.4 Experts estimate 31 percent of these servicemen and women suffer from varying degrees of PTSD.5

PTSD symptoms include flashbacks, which typically manifest themselves in “recurrent nightmares during which the traumatic event is relived; hyper-vigilance; exaggerated startled responses; irritability or outbursts of anger; or difficulty concentrating or completing tasks.”6 Interestingly, these markers “may occur six months to a year after the triggering stressor.”7

This article offers guidance and insight into the military justice system applicable to cases of PTSD, and the typical maneuvering that is necessary in achieving the best possible result for the returning combat veteran.