On March 19, 2012, Dr. Drew did us all a big favor. He covered the Kandahar shooting incident on his HLN cable show in such a sensationalized way, that it should serve as a powerful example for how the media should NOT cover an issue – particularly one as devastating as this.On late night TV, Dr. Drew brought on two people who know nothing about the case, but have an emotional, personal connection to the suspect, Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. The couple, childhood friends, talked about what a great guy he was. And how he helped a mentally disabled neighbor growing up. It was touching. But it was nothing more than scratching the itch of curiosity and gossip, and not relevant to the bigger issues at stake for our country right now.
For 20 minutes, Dr. Drew continued to push the narrative of Bales as a victim, a baseless one that many in the media have latched onto this past week. This does Bales a ton of good for his defense, but it does 2.4 million troops who have served honorably, and not gone on murderous rampages, a total disservice. It’s also pretty damn dismissive of the real victims, the 16 Afghan civilians killed. Of course, the segment got worse. Next, Dr. Drew brought on Dr. Paul Ragan. Ragan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, suggested “a combination of Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD” was responsible for the Kandahar shooting.
You sure about that one, Doc? Were you there?
His ignorant, irresponsible comment reveals the scary underbelly of raising awareness of invisible wounds. Because, as former Army officer and current national security consultant, Jason Fritz, recently wrote for Ink Spots: “Between 1 (million) and 2 million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, well over 100,000 of them have deployed three or more times, and 300,000 to 600,000 are suffering from PTSD. So far only one person in that large population went out and killed 16 civilians.”
At the end of the segment, Dr. Drew went back to the childhood friends of Bales, who offered up this gem of an observation: “These poor men are coming back and not knowing – I mean, you go to gas stations and you see these men who had wonderful medals and valor and they’re begging for beer and drugs.”
Nice. I didn’t expect much from HLN but that pretty much sealed the stereotype. Regrettably, Dr. Drew didn’t challenge it—he just cut to commercial, with no pushback whatsoever. As a whole, the exchange turned out to be as bad as the “Sergeant Psycho” cover from the New York Daily News last week – which up until last night I thought stood out as the worst piece of journalism on this issue to date.
As an Iraq vet, I asked myself watching the segment, “Where’s the balance?” Shouldn’t Dr. Drew show the human side of someone with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)? Maybe someone who hasn’t been accused of killing women and children?
Ironically, HLN had someone waiting on camera. IAVA’s Nick Colgin, a decorated Army medic and Afghanistan vet, who suffered a serious TBI on his first tour, was there on set ready to contribute to the conversation. And he did, for a grand total of about 30 seconds. (He’s since been edited out of the HLN clip entirely.)
On Monday night, Nick ran to the HLN studio at 9:40 p.m., on a few hours notice, stuck an IFB in his ear, and jumped on national TV to represent hundreds of thousands of vets – only to be disrespected by a whole segment of stereotyping and a whopping half-minute to tell his story. He did his best. He held his own. And he proved to be a great example of how individuals with a TBI are beating the odds despite injury – in his case, by maintaining composure despite this explosion of stupidity happening all around him. I think most people would have walked off the set like Christine O’Donnell or Joy Behar. But Nick didn’t. Like most good soldiers, he kept his cool — even under the toughest circumstances. That is discipline, and something all Americans should appreciate.
So folks in the media, please take notes. Do your homework. Kandahar and TBIs are issues too damn important for you to cut corners or fail to ask the hard questions. You owe it to our troops, to the Afghan people, to your profession and to the American public to do a better job reporting the facts as this story evolves.
Call us for assistance. We’ve got IAVA reports and studies; on this issue. And we’re happy to help. So is every other veterans’ group in America, from TAPS to Operation Mend to National Veterans Foundation to the Pat Tillman Foundation.
For the sake of our vets, I hope we don’t have to do another intervention here. Because after writing this piece, I definitely can’t call Dr Drew.
Paul Rieckhoff, an Army veteran of the Iraq war. He served as an enlisted man before being commissioned as a first lieutenant. He was a rifle platoon leader in Iraq from 2003 through 2004. Rieckhoff is the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the author of Chasing Ghosts.