Combat Veterans and Criminality: The Case of Audie Murphy

Audie Murphy, Hero

Combat Veterans and Criminality: The Case of Audie Murphy, Part I


    If you came of age during the period 1945-1970 chances are very good that you will have heard of one very distinguished US Army veteran, Audie Murphy. At the end of hostilities during WWII, Murphy emerged as the most highly decorated soldier in the history of the US Armed Forces. He was born in a small Texas town and, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the Army and went off to fight against Nazi Germany.

     By the end of the war in 1945, Murphy had fought in nine extremely bloody and horrendous campaigns. Officially, he was credited with over 200 confirmed kills, but many who served with him averred that the numbers ran much higher. He captured or wounded many, many more enemy combatants and tales of his valorous exploits became the stuff of legend. Among the many decorations and medals he received during the course of his combat service he counted; the Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Star(s) with “V” for Valor, 3 Purple Hearts, the French Croix de Guerre and our nation’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal Honor.


               Return to Civilian Life, Fighting a Hidden and Personal War


      Following his return home from the war, Murphy struggled to adjust to civilian life. Ultimately, he connected with Hollywood and starred in a series of movies, including perhaps his most well-known film “To Hell and Back” which recounted his own combat exploits. Murphy went on to get his piece of the American Dream, acquiring both fame and fortune. Yet, hidden from public view, Murphy struggled with what he had seen and done during the course of his wartime service. At the time, it was referred to as Battle or Combat Fatigue. Today, we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

     Murphy later related that he never slept without a pistol under his pillow after the war. He suffered from terrible nightmares and insomnia. He struggled with alcohol and became addicted to prescription drugs. His first wife, the young actress Wanda Hendrix, later admitted that he once held her at gun-point. He struggled with anger-management issues and anxiety: In 1970 he was charged with aggravated assault following a fight with another man, somewhat tarnishing his image  In addition, he also succumbed to a chronic gambling addiction which left him nearly broke at the time of his death in 1971 in an airplane crash. He was 45 years old.

Audie Murphy, To Hell and Back

Audie Murphy, To Hell and Back

           The Combat Veteran Becomes Spokesman for Combat Stress


      As the war in Vietnam ground on Murphy came forward and talked about his own struggles after leaving the service. Our most decorated veteran became one of our most vocal and early proponents for the recognition of combat stress. Perhaps watching the wars in Korea and Vietnam caused him to relive his own combat experiences much as Vietnam veterans today have been triggered by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps this dynamic is something only other veterans can truly understand. Audie Murphy, in his public stance, in a sense, carried his heroism forward from the battlefield into civilian life. It was not easy admitting to things which many at the time perceived as weakness–the “greatest generation” hid the pain and the nightmares and the addictions from public view. They suffered from the same impacts, they just didn’t talk about them. But having Audie Murphy come forward meant a great deal. After all, he was Audie Murphy.

      In 1980-81, the American Medical Association a (AMA) and Veteran’s Administration (VA) officially recognized Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a valid diagnosis under the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMR). Five years after the ending of the war in Vietnam the Veteran’s Administration finally began treating the disorder on both an in-patient and out-patient basis. During the course of Vietnam, the condition had been called “Vietnam Veteran’s Combat Syndrome” by some, but official and final recognition by professional medical communities and the VA offered some measure of hope to the hundreds of thousands who suffered and struggled mightily, often in silence, with their wartime experience.

     When Audie Murphy came forward it most certainly moved the cause ahead. No one could say that he was weak or say–as some do today–that he was just trying to get compensation from the Federal government for veterans could not get compensation for PTSD at that point in time. No one could say he was a slacker or just playing the system. After all, he was Audie Murphy.


       Different Times and Changing Landscapes


    Human nature is such that we all tend to measure the world by the view from our respective front porches. We tend to forget to remember when we assess problems and situations. It has often been remarked that the American people lack a depth of historical understanding. Truly, we tend to view the world through a very short-term lens. The latter half of the twentieth century was dominated by two great societies, the Soviet Union and the United States. In the former, history could be rewritten by official mandate. In the Soviet Union five and ten year plans ruled the order of the day–and anything contradictory to a given, current plan succumbed to an official act of forgetting. In the United States no such mandatory edicts were necessary, for the bulk of the population tended to forget anything beyond a ten year increment of time anyway. Indeed, this may be deemed a salient trait of our national character. If anything, the trait is even more pronounced in the year 2016 than it was twenty years hence.

       While most folks working on veterans or veterans-justice matters possess some measure of awareness around the history of PTSD and its official recognition, they tend to be very lacking in the layers of experience and the depth of understanding of multiple, collateral systems and policies that would allow them to fully comprehend extant efforts and whether or not they really address the core issues which lead veterans to the intersection of justice. In short, for many working in veterans justice-related matters they possess a level of understanding or experience in one aspect of the problem, but lack a holistic understanding of a wide range of factors which shape our responses.


The Case of Audie Murphy and Temporal Evaluations 


      Let’s think a bit about Murphy’s personal experiences and behavior after the war and what they would mean in contemporary American society. Like many veterans, then and now, he carried weapons after his return home. During the period 1945-1975 carrying a firearm–and in many cases using one–carried nowhere near the potential criminal penalties that they do today. A wide range of additions to Federal and State laws governing the purchase, storage, use and sale of firearms appeared during the period. The first Statutes regarding Domestic Violence and its perpetration, didn’t pass into law on a wide scale until the 1980s. Drunk driving during the same period, in many areas of the country, received a very different response than today: Older citizens may attest that at earlier points in time members of law enforcement used to pull over drunk drivers, take their keys and drive them home. The War on Drugs, launched formally in 1968 as part of LBJ’s War on Crime, meted out a wide range of criminal penalties around the purchase, sale and use of controlled substances.

      Murphy was arrested for assault in 1970. Had he been around today he may very well be doing a very long prison sentence for the offenses he himself acknowledged; drug abuse, domestic violence, assault, firearms charges. These are the types of offenses which combat veterans are commonly arrested for today.

      The strangest thing about veterans at the intersection of justice today is that we recognize PTSD and its symptomology. We recognize that the disorder sometimes leads to criminal behavior when not diagnosed and treated. We recognize the rise of our justice system over the course of a period of thirty years (1980-2010). We avow that intervention strategies–such as the veterans treatment courts–are a good thing to do. And then we prohibit admission to the veterans courts for a wide range of offenses and to a wide range of veterans, including those who were separated from service under less than honorable conditions—the very veterans most in need of effective interventions and admission to programs that would help.

      In the military we called it a dog-and-pony show. No serious drug offenses, no crimes of violence, limits on drunk driving offenses, strident parameters around domestic violence-type offenses, caps and restrictions on firearms related offenses….but aside from those, and if you have an Honorable Discharge, we’ll help you. At some point your jaw hits the floor and you just gotta ask, “Have you people even read your own research?”


(To  be cont’d)


1 Comment

  1. This was a very interesting and informative article.

    Growing up in the mid 1970’s in Los Angeles, CA, my first job was working at a bagel bakery. One of the three owners of the bakery, Sidney Stern, was a decorated WWII Airman. He only mentioned a few things here an there about the war, never going too much into details, and I remember how wound-up Sidney would get when talking about a war story. Later, one of the owners brought a cousin to manage the baker, his name was Sheldon. Sheldon was a Vietnam Veteran, and rarely did he talk about the war.

    As a matter of fact, how I found out that he was a veteran was when my cousin, Lalo and I decided to roll a Mexican-Garbanzo (a gun powdered coated garbanzo bean that when thrown on a hard surface will crackle and spark, eventually igniting, catching fire and extinguishing itself on its own) at Sheldon. Now Sheldon at the time that had to be in his mid 50’s or early 60’s, and let me tell you, that firework prank we did caused him to hop over the 5 foot front counter and take shelter behind it. Of course Lalo and I saw how fast he jumped and how he hid and kept popping his head in and out his cover and concealment, and thinking that we were going to get our butts handed we ran to the back of the storage room and chuckled. A few minutes passed and no Sheldon, then 5, 10, and 15 minutes went by. Finally, we came out, thinking that Sheldon might have one of his own pranks for us, we cautiously walked to the store front, where we caught him sitting near some steps, smoking a cigarettes, and shaking his head at us. But we didn’t laugh this time because he was a bit pale and seemed rather shaken up. After a few minutes he slowly came around and told us, “You fucking guys made me have some bad fucking flash backs!” Neither Lalo or I knew what that was, so Sheldon seeing our puzzled looks, he began to educate us on flash backs, and then he began to share some of his experiences while in his combat tours in Vietnam.

    We never joked around like that with Sheldon after that.

    But despite growing up talking with other veterans from WWI to Vietnam, I never knew the lifetime burden that a front-line warrior carries in their minds and hearts. It was not until I was called to duty and went to war in Afghanistan (November 2005 to March 2007) that I came to understand and LIVE the experiences that all front-line warriors. These days, I try to educate as best as possible the public in being more aware and sensitive towards military service combat veterans. It’s not an easy task, because unfortunately most civilians get their first source, and their first impressions of the military through the eyes of Hollywood. The other unfortunate side to that is that these Hollywood-stories hardly ever will depict the hard life of the Enlisted or that boot Lt., who are mostly in general, in the front the front lines.

    Thanks for the story, and I’m looking forward to reading part 2.

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