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Doctors taking a closer look at crime by veterans

PITTSBURGH — Crime committed by veterans appears to be an increasing problem, but doctors who broadly attribute it to PTSD could be ignoring other important factors.

Medical professionals weren't sure why some veterans are at an increased risk for arrest, notes a study published last month in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, but many supposed those with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury would show higher rates of criminal arrests.

"We have to go beyond PTSD if we want to have answers to these questions," said forensic psychiatrist and professor at New York University Michael Welner, who spoke on the subject Friday at Duquesne University's Cyril W. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law.

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He was not an author of the study but referenced it in his presentation during the two-day conference, "Post-Combat Problems in the 21st Century."

Dr. Welner said getting stuck in "a box of PTSD" and traumatic brain injury doesn't account for potential causal factors, such as criminal and drug histories.

To suggest war makes a veteran more at risk of committing violent crimes is disparaging and rebuffs important values they have learned in the military, Dr. Welner said. Murder and shocking crimes by veterans are, in fact, exceptionally low, he said.

Still, he said, "We're not just talking about one person. We're talking about the idea of a crime rate."

The October study concluded that a subset of veterans with PTSD and problems such as anger and irritability may be at increased risk of criminal arrest.

But the authors also found, as Dr. Welner noted, arrests were more strongly linked to substance abuse and criminal history. They advised clinicians to consider "non-PTSD factors when evaluating and treating veterans with criminal justice involvement."

The authors interviewed 1,388 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans for the analysis.

Dr. Welner, too, cited cases in which veterans' arrests had little to nothing to do with traumatic brain injury or PTSD.

Veterans may be dealing with apathy and resentment of the people they're trying to help, a sense that death or injury could have been prevented and many other problems.

"What happens to you when you fail to win hearts?" Dr. Welner posed in his presentation.

Risk factors also include the downsizing of military, extended deployment, traumatized or hardened caregivers and limited access to a chaplain.

Humanizing the framework of veteran research is crucial, he said.

"These are ticking time bombs," he said, "and they have to be properly diffused."

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