22 February, 2007

war & death: remembering Manny Babbitt - "we disown them"

Now's a good time to take a look at some sobering facts about homeless and incarcerated veterans in America, and to revisit the story of Manny Babbitt, while Dana Priest's article has the overwhelmed VA & the care returning veterans require on everyone's minds. Manny, the son of Cape Verdean immigrants, was an African-American Vietnam vet with a Purple Heart who was executed by the State of California in 1999.

First, from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans:

The U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says the nation's homeless veterans are mostly males (4 % are females). The vast majority are single, most come from poor, disadvantaged communities, 45% suffer from mental illness, and half have substance abuse problems. America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Forty-seven percent of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam Era. More than 67% served our country for at least three years and 33% were stationed in a war zone.

How many homeless veterans are there?

Although accurate numbers are impossible to come by -- no one keeps national records on homeless veterans -- the VA estimates that nearly 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. And nearly 400,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year. Conservatively, one out of every three homeless men who is sleeping in a doorway, alley or box in our cities and rural communities has put on a uniform and served this country. According to the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the Urban Institute, 1999), veterans account for 23% of all homeless people in America.
. . .

In January 2000, The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a special report on incarcerated veterans. Following are highlights of the report: "Veterans in Prison or Jail."

Over 225,000 veterans [were] held in [the] Nation’s prisons or jails in 1998.
Among adult males in 1998, there were 937 incarcerated veterans per 100,000 veteran residents.

1 in every 6 incarcerated veterans was not honorably discharged from the military. [i.e. 5 of every 6 were honorably discharged]

About 20% of veterans in prison reported seeing combat duty during their military service.

In 1998, an estimated 56,500 Vietnam War-era veterans and 18,500 Persian Gulf War veterans were held in State and Federal prisons.

Nearly 60% of incarcerated veterans had served in the Army.

Among state prisoners, over half (53%) of veterans were white non-hispanics, compared to nearly a third (31%) of non-veterans; Among Federal prisoners, the percentage of veterans who were white (50%) was nearly double that of non-veterans (26%).

Among State prisoners, the median age of veterans was 10 years older than other prison and jail inmates.

Among State prisoners, veterans (32%) were about 3 times more likely than non-veterans (11%) to have attended college.

Veterans are more likely than others to be in prison for a violent offense but less likely to be serving a sentence for drugs.

About 35% of veterans in State prison, compared to 20% of non-veterans, were convicted of homicide or sexual assault.

Veterans (30%) were more likely than other State prisoners (23%) to be first-time offenders.

Among violent State prisoners, the average sentence of veterans was 50 months longer than the average of non-veterans.

At year-end 1997, sex offenders accounted for 1 in 3 prisoners held in military correctional facilities.

Combat veterans were no more likely to be violent offenders than other veterans.

Veterans in State prison reported higher levels of alcohol abuse, lower levels of drug abuse, than other prisoners.

Veterans in State prison were less likely (26%) than other State prisoners (34%) to report having used drugs at the time of their offense.

Nearly 60% of veterans in State prison had driven drunk in the past, compared to 45% of other inmates.

About 70% of veterans, compared to 54% of other State prisoners, had been working full-time before arrest.     [thanks to liberal catnip for the pointer]
 Those figures don't even try to delve into the realm of veterans returning with PTSD. All indications seem to indicate that the domestic incoming from the current war are going to make those statistics look trivial. The life of Manny Babbitt was one of institutional failure at every turn, leaving numerous victims in its wake. It still fills me with sorrow and rage.

Manny Babbitt

Manny Babbitt was executed in California on 4 May 1999. He was a 51-year-old decorated Vietnam veteran whose capital crime appears to have been linked to combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Manny Babbitt's first taste of active service after joining the US Marines in 1967 was the siege of Khe Sanh, the longest and bloodiest battle of the Vietnam war. On his return to the USA, he experienced severe difficulties adjusting to civilian life and slid into serious alcohol and drug problems. He spent eight months in a mental hospital where conditions at the time were described by a federal judge as "shocking" and "unconstitutional." His declining mental health was diagnosed, but never treated. A leading expert on Vietnam combat-related PTSD concluded that Babbitt was suffering from a combat-related flashback, aggravated by hallucinogenic drugs, when he killed Leah Schendel in 1980, and hid and tagged her body as soldiers had hidden and tagged their fallen comrades in Vietnam. Many Vietnam veterans campaigned to save Manny Babbitt from execution, including one ex-Marine who identified him as the soldier who had saved his life at the siege of Khe Sanh. link
How many people have, continue to, and will in the future fall through the proverbial "cracks" in the system?

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he lived with his brother, Bill, and Bill's wife in Sacramento, Calif. One day in 1980, Bill came across evidence that Manny had perpetrated a break-in robbery and beaten an elderly woman, who died of a heart attack afterward. Bill made the agonizing decision to turn his brother in to the police, so that he couldn't harm others. The police assured him he had done the right thing, that his brother would be given treatment for his problems in prison and would not be subject to the death penalty.

The authorities lied, Bill Babbitt said. They arrested Manny, who confessed. Manny later told Bill, "What they said I did, I must have done it." He was tried, convicted and given the death penalty. His first lawyer took Bill's money and dropped the case. His second, a court-appointed lawyer, refused to allow blacks on the jury, drank heavily and was later disbarred and sued for racism. Manny's military heroism and mental problems were not disclosed during his trial.

Bill Babbit, who once supported the death penalty, tried to work within the system to save Manny's life, until "everybody -- the DA, the police -- didn't want to deal with me anymore," he said. The system didn't bend. link
PTSD was a controversial theory in those days; while it's legitimacy as a condition goes unchallenged today, one does hear about the VA disputing individual diagnoses, sometimes going so far as to accuse vets of faking & malingering, all in order to reduce their benefits & costs of treatment.

Babbitt's childhood was traumatic and impoverished. At an early age he was sent out to do back-breaking work. He left school at 17 unable to read. His alcoholic father beat and brutalized both him and his mentally ill mother. Babbitt and his other siblings were ridiculed daily with racist taunts from members of their community. Babbitt's father died a slow death from cancer, forcing extra responsibility on Babbitt, who became a surrogate parent to his siblings. Psychiatric and neurological disorders ran rampant in the family.

In June 1967, Babbitt joined the US Marines. He initially failed the screening exam, but with 'help' from the recruiter he passed on the second attempt. Upon arriving in Vietnam in December 1967 he went straight into active service in the siege of Khe Sanh, the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. On 17 March 1968 Babbitt was wounded in action but returned to his unit almost immediately because the policy at the time was to keep returning men to the field until they had been wounded three times. Promoted to Corporal, Babbitt was awarded the Cross of Gallantry, the Purple Heart and other decorations. He returned to the USA in August 1969, remained in the Marines but had severe difficulties adjusting to life outside combat. After taking unauthorized leave he was finally discharged after being deemed 'unsuitable'.

Babbitt has a severe, chronic case of combat-induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ('PTSD'). A leading expert on Vietnam combat related PTSD concluded 'to a reasonable medical certainty that [Babbitt] was suffering from severe chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, aggravated by alcohol and drug abuse, resulting in his experiencing... a dissociative state at the time of the offense.' PTSD, a now- recognized debilitating disorder, was neither understood nor officially recognized until the end of the 1970s. The symptoms of PTSD include dissociative states during which the individual relives the original traumatic event. For those trained in combat, re-experiencing the event may cause unpredictable explosions of aggressive behaviour. From 1974 Manny Babbitt suffered from increasing periods of mental instability, spending eight months in a mental hospital and attempting suicide. A psychiatrist diagnosed Babbitt as suffering from 'schizophrenic reaction, paranoid type, who shows tendencies toward self-destruction'. A federal magistrate described the conditions in the mental hospital that treated Babbitt as 'shocking' and 'unconstitutional' one month after Babbitt was released from it.

Before he was sent to Vietnam, Babbitt had no history of serious criminal or violent behaviour, but from 1973 onwards he was increasingly involved in crime. His declining mental health was diagnosed but never treated. After taking hallucinogenic drugs, Babbitt is said to have experienced a combat-related flashback which lasted for two days and resulted in amnesia. During that time he killed Leah Schendel and tried to rape another woman, Mavis Wilson. The body of Schendel was hidden and tagged as soldiers hid and tagged their fallen comrades in Vietnam.
. . .

In a comment to the press, the prosecuting authorities showed no understanding or sympathy for suffers of PTSD. A deputy district attorney was recently quoted as stating: 'It's spin that's put on the case to take advantage of the national sense of guilt over Vietnam. The event [the murder] occurred 12 years after Khe Sanh and 10 years after he was discharged.' link
from War and the death penalty, by Russell Neufeld:

The death penalty is something we impose on the people we send off to war, who get terribly messed up and then come home and do terrible things.

War traumatizes the people in it. Soldiers are trained to kill. They kill others and see their own comrades killed and wounded. They may narrowly miss death themselves. They come home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)--known in earlier wars as "shell shock" or "combat fatigue." They use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate--to deaden the awful feelings and thoughts. The Vietnam War was a major cause of the drug plague that swept this country during the 1970s and 1980s.
. . .

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are producing a whole new generation of traumatized GIs, returning home with many of the same problems as their predecessors. The New England Journal of Medicine recently reported on a study of U.S. forces in Iraq. One in six self-report being traumatized. It is believed that self-reporting results in some underreporting, and that the true figure is closer to one in four.
And many of these young people go from being cannon fodder to grist for the capital punishment mill. In 2002, three Special Forces soldiers who had fought in Afghanistan returned home, and within six weeks, each killed their wives.
. . .

There is a biblical admonition that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. The story of one of my capital clients is a good example. His father went to Vietnam; another young, Black man, and, just like Manny Babbitt, he was at Khe Sanh. Assigned to an artillery unit, he saw his best friend get blown up, standing right next to him. He returned with PTSD. He took to drinking and drugs and violent fights with his wife, which my client witnessed.

When my client was nine years old, his father would take him with him to buy drugs. When my client was 13, his older sister started dating a drug dealer. This man appeared to my client as everything his father wasn't: successful and together. He looked up to him and soon started helping deal drugs. A few years later, they were both charged with capital murder for drug-related homicides.

So we send young people to war—to its horrors. It messes them up terribly, and when they do terribly messed up things—beat or kill their wives, steal to support their drug habit, and then kill someone in the course of a robbery—we disown them. We deny our own culpability as a society.

War is the great creator of the "other." War creates a moral numbness, allowing us to kill totally innocent human beings. War, therefore, not only creates killers who face the death penalty, it also creates the moral climate that allows jurors to think it's okay for the state to kill the killers.


Blogger Daniela said...

Wait a minute, was this person facing the firing squad for refusing to serve in war? Not at all. Was he facing prison? He might have, if he had been fit and if he had burnt his draft card or deserted; but the man was illitterate, and in fact, he had to cheat at the admission test, which anyway worked only at the second attempt. He had a job at a shoe factory, but he'd rather get some extra money and go to Vietnam - where napalm was poured unto civilians and they were blown into pieces. Please explain: how would *that* be someone else's fault?

5:32 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home