Monday, August 22, 2005

Jason Kerns: poster boy of tomorrow?

Maggie says:
What a violent week in Albuquerque. For those of you out of town, we had eight murders in the last week - five of them by the same man. John Hyde, who went on a killing spree Friday, was a mentally troubled man with a history of not taking his medication regularly. In one day, he murdered a long-time Department of Transportation worker, a high school student, a new father, and two police officers. Jesus. It reminded me of an officer shooting a couple of years ago, when another mental patient nearly killed a police officer very close to my then-home. Mental health is the big connector for so many crimes here. The lessons seem to scream out from the headlines: when we don't take care of the sick around us, we pay tenfold in the end.

But the crime that keeps coming up for me isn't one from last week. A little over two weeks ago, a Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department helicopter was shot down in a Westside neighborhood. On Friday, Jason Kerns, 29, was indicted on five charges for the shooting that miraculously didn't seriously injure anyone.

If Dickens were writing this drama, Kerns would be the Ghost of Christmas Future. Consider this:

Kerns describes himself as a "trained sniper" from the Marines. He had been stationed in Afghanistan before being honorably discharged in late 2001. After being discharged, he was in and out of vet hospitals with a spinal cord injury, one that still plagues him today. But the kicker? According to his parents, Kerns has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since his departure from the Marines.

He's been unable to hold down a job. He's been in and out of hospitals seeking treatment. He lives with his parents. And now: using his sniper training to shoot down a helicopter because it was "annoying" him. Don't get me wrong: Kerns is no hero; what he allegedly did easily could have killed the two men aboard and who knows how many more on the ground. But he may well be a symbol of what's to come.

Right now, the U.S. has some 138,000 troops stationed in Iraq. Suicide rates are at an all-time high. Troop morale is at an all-time low. Reports abound of troops making their own protective gear out of scrap metal because our government won't provide it for them. Families are turning on Bush. We're seeing more anger, less blind mourning.

And at home? Our homeless shelters are full of Vietnam veterans. We see them on street corners every day. A couple of months ago I saw a guy holding a sign on San Mateo saying he was a Gulf War vet. He was twitching and his eyes were completely vacant. He was absolutely haunting. Is he our future?

Compensation to dead soldier's families is shockingly low. And what about the benefits to those who manage to stay alive? Thousands will come home shell-shocked, angry, and lost. We need to be ready for them. We have to realize what's around the corner. We can't be surprised if they lack bravado and a happy face. Suburban moms and shirt-and-tie managers with yellow magnets on their SUVs must have compassion for them, must want to help them, must not look away when they're standing on the corner holding a sign:

"Iraq Vet. Hungry. Homeless."

And those not holding signs? That was Jason Kerns, wasn't it?