The action came quickly: Omar J. Gonzalez allegedly hopped the fence at the White House last month, rushing over the North Lawn before bursting through the front door and getting tackled in the building’s ornate East Room.
The details of that scramble into the nation’s most iconic building has captured national attention and garnered scrutiny on Capitol Hill, where an oversight committee is examining today how security could have failed so badly. But there’s another question that has not been answered: How relevant is it that he fought in Iraq for the U.S. Army?
The case hits a common narrative that frustrates many veterans: that of the individual who serves in combat, and then somehow “snaps” afterward and becomes a danger to himself and his community.
The former soldier’s family has pointed out his military history in interviews over the last few weeks while explaining what may have possessed him to allegedly take an action that could have got him killed by Secret Service agents. He was dealing with post-traumatic stress and had been living out of his car recently, a family member told The Washington Post.
Gonzalez served in Iraq as a cavalry scout, leaving the Army as a sergeant, said Wayne Collins, an Army spokesman. The soldier joined in July 1997 and was discharged in September 2003. He rejoined the service in July 2005 — not uncommon, especially at a time when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were underway — and was retired due to an unspecified disability in December 2012, Collins said.
As a cavalry scout, Gonzalez likely conducted patrols in Iraq and served as the eyes and ears of his commander while observing enemy movement.He deployed at least once, from October 2006 to January 2008, and earned a Combat Action Badge, Army officials said, indicating he was engaged by enemy fighters at some point.
But there are some uncertainties about his background. The New York Times reported last week that his former neighbors in Texas said he complained about a foot injury, and believed he sustained it in Iraq. The Army does not list a Purple Heart among his awards, though, raising questions about whether it occurred due to enemy action. At least one other media report has suggested the foot was injured by an improvised explosive device, attributing the information to an unnamed family member. That would qualify for the Purple Heart.
Gonzalez’s case hits themes explored recently by The Post’s Greg Jaffe in a story out of Alaska: How much should Gonzalez be held accountable for his alleged actions if he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? As Jaffe’s story notes, the condition has been linked regularly to criminal behavior, especially when combined with family problems, anger and alcohol.
Still, the vast majority of veterans with post-traumatic stress commit no crimes, and many have expressed frustration when PTSD is cited as a reason for other veterans who have committed crimes. Numerous pieces to that effect were written by veterans following the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, in April that killed three people and wounded 16 more.
The circumstances of Gonzalez’s case will be released over time. Until then, it may be best to reserve judgment.