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Opinion: Sen. John Walsh citing PTSD in defense of plagiarism hurts veterans

Editor’s note: On occasion, Checkpoint will feature work from U.S. service members and veterans. This is one such piece.

U.S. Sen. John Walsh speaks to reporters in Helena, Mont., on Jan. 26.  The Democrat’s thesis paper written for the U.S. Army War College contains unattributed passages that appear to be taken word-for-word from previously published papers. Walsh faces Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines in the Nov. 4 election. (AP Photo/Matt Volz, File)

I was sitting in a college classroom less than a year after coming home from Iraq. We were discussing Shakespeare. I was thinking about dead bodies in Baghdad. It was jarring and uncomfortable that first semester, but I knew I couldn’t let my struggles influence my academic career.

Sen. John Walsh (D.-Mont.) took a different approach in his studies, according to the Associated Press.

Plagiarism is as wrong as it rampant, so I don’t care that much about that charge.

What really upsets me is Walsh’s use of post-traumatic stress disorder to defend academic dishonesty. It has the potential to further distort society’s understanding of mental trauma and create space for veterans to misuse their diagnoses in any number of situations, academic or otherwise.

Walsh, a decorated Iraq war veteran and former Army general, was accused of plagiarizing parts of an Army War College essay, according to a report in the New York Times. He told the AP he was battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dealing with the suicide of a soldier from his unit when he wrote the paper in 2007.

“I don’t want to blame my mistake on PTSD,” Walsh said about the allegations, “but I do want to say it may have been a factor.”

The plagiarism itself is misconduct with limited consequences. It hurts Walsh certainly (and doesn’t help Democrats in the fight for control of the Senate).

The longer lasting damage, though, comes from Walsh’s excuses.

How are bosses supposed to think about veterans now? It doesn’t matter if a young veteran has PTSD or not. That wouldn’t be on a resume. But a hiring manager who sees a tour in Afghanistan on a job application will think back to a New York Times A1 story and remember accountability for a veteran’s actions can be smoothed over with a poorly understood four letter acronym.

In essence, a high-profile mea-culpa of PTSD as a justification for bad behavior reframes the condition for civilians in a problematic way: as a possible get-out-of-jail-free card for veterans whom may have otherwise been interested in hiring. As the employment rate for young veterans remains higher than civilian counterparts, additional workplace concerns and caution about hiring veterans would be a troubling development.

There are already erroneous cultural assumptions about what PTSD is and is not. The media sold the condition as the catalyst of the recent Ft. Hood shootings. It’s also at the center of a case of an Iraq veteran who engaged in a shootout with police. PTSD is a purported explanation of violence when military training and wartime trauma begin to intersect.

Walsh’s claim carries a more abstract association. He told the AP he was on medication and struggling to cope. Those factors, he explains, led to unscrupulous behavior.

That reasoning may help a senator but hurt other veterans. Folks going from the battlefield to the office must already contend with hiring managers who worry war veterans damaged by PTSD can be a physical threat in the workplace. Piling on to this problem will only negatively affect the reintegration of thousands of veterans who are coming home after Walsh.

As a retired general officer, Walsh is the sole Iraq veteran in the Senate. He has set a standard for others to follow, and without swift condemnation across the veteran community, Walsh’s behavior signals to veterans that professional and personal accountability can be suspended at will. In this case, veterans could leverage a civilian’s ignorance about the condition and chalk up mistakes and moral lapses to something that happened in that vague and scary place “over there.”

That is not right. PTSD causes certain behaviors, but ethical violations are not one of them. Not only that, Walsh’s defense diminishes the seriousness of a condition that affects half a million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Walsh is not helping those veterans, and neither are his defenders. Sen. John Tester, (D.-Mont.) lobbied the public to consider the totality of his service in light of this problem. “He’s a soldier, not an academic,” he said.

What are we to make of this? That there is a time and a place where taking without attribution is acceptable, and it’s while in uniform? The American idea of a senior military official is one of a strict moral code, not a shield in which to hide from personal misconduct.

It’s time for Walsh to do what he would expect any subordinate of his to do: own up to his mistakes and take responsibility for them.

Until then, his display of moral gymnastics will continue to damage the credibility of countless veterans who seek their own success. For veterans returning from a decade of conflict, the stakes are too high to permit a mental health injury as a scapegoat when we falter.

Alex Horton served for 15 months as an infantryman in Iraq.



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