Monday, January 14, 2008

A rural angle on a tragedy repeating itself around the nation

The New York Times yesterday kicked off a new series called War Torn, and the initial story was about the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have killed or been accused of killing since returning home or while home on leave. One of those featured was veteran Seth Strasburg of Arnold, Nebraska, a small town in Custer County, in the central part of the state. He killed another young man in his town on New Year's Eve, 2005, while drunk and inexplicably toting a gun. He is serving 22-36 years in prison for manslaughter.

All of the profiles offered in this series are tragic, but I am highlighting this one because of its rural angle. In a town of just over 600, there is no doubt the killer and the victim knew each other, although their familiarity was apparently not a factor in the killing. The repercussions of an event such as this are different for a town the size of Arnold, where families know one another. The reporter quotes one citizen of Arnold: “To lose one young man permanently and another to prison, with Iraq mixed up in the middle of it — the town was torn up.” The story also reports that Strasburg's mother, "believing that the shooting was a product of his combat trauma, started an organization to create awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder. Her activism, however, deeply offended the victim's parents," one of whom is quoted as saying "I'm sorry, but it feels like a personal affront, like she's trying to excuse our son's death with the war."

In fact, many of the 121 veterans who have killed or been charged with killing since returning from Iraq are from small town America. But this shouldn't cast rural America in a negative light. The correlation is almost certainly attributable to the disproportionate number of rural citizens serving in these wars. It surely also reflects the dearth of social services -- mental health support in particular -- in rural places.

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