Killing 'Really Addictive:' Veteran's Essay Leads to Ban From Campus

Veteran's college essay on killing in combat worries administrators.

ByKIM CAROLLO, ABC News Medical Unit
November 22, 2010, 2:04 PM

Nov. 24, 2010— -- In an essay for a college English class, Charles Whittington Jr. opened up about his feelings about his time in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Killing becomes a drug, and it is really addictive. I had a really hard time with this problem when I returned to the United States, because turning this addiction off was impossible," Whittington wrote in the essay for his class at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville, Md.

"I wrote this essay and the teacher gave me an A for it, and she encouraged me to publish it in the school newspaper," Whittington said. "Two weeks later, it was published."

After reading it, college administrators called Whittington into a meeting.

"They said he's barred until he gets a psychological evaluation," said Deborah O'Doherty, president of the Maryland chapter of American War Mothers and a friend of Whittington's family. She attended the meeting with Whittington. "They also gave him a no-trespass notice and kept bringing up the Virginia Tech shooting."

"I was really frustrated, because they didn't give me a chance to explain," said Whittington. "I wrote the paper to talk about the reality of what other soldiers go through and it was therapeutic for me."

Hope Davis, a college spokeswoman, said, "The violent and inflammatory content of Mr. Whittington's article raised some red flags we felt we needed to address in this post-Virginia Tech era. We have an obligation to maintain a safe and comfortable learning environment for the diverse population of nearly 74,000 students we serve." She said some students did complain, and most were veterans who expressed concern the essay would portray all veterans in a bad light.

O'Doherty said Whittington offered the college administrators a psychological evaluation he had when he left the military a couple of years ago, but the administrators said it's too old and they want him to go to a Veterans Administration hospital.

Whittington said he has now gone for an evaluation, and believes it will show he is not a threat to anyone.

Medical experts say Whittington's experience is extremely common among veterans, who feel the adrenaline rush of being in combat and then have difficulty adjusting to life without it when they leave the military. While they have different opinions about whether the college reacted appropriately to Whittington's essay, experts agree that many people don't understand what combat veterans have had to endure, which often leaves them unfairly stigmatized.

"For a combat soldier who's engaged in combat on the ground, to be trained to kill and to feel the adrenaline rush in killing is not unusual at all," said Dr. Joan Anzia, associate professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

"He's writing about how something changes in you in a combat situation, and it's hard to turn that off in a civilian situation," said Dr. Doug Bremner, professor of psychiatry and radiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Experts also say that although Whittington characterized his feelings as an addiction to killing, it's more of a dependence on something else.

"He's addicted to hyperarousal and the adrenaline rush," said Dr. Jon Shaw, professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine. "That's what becomes addicting is the rush."

"To some extent, it's fairly boring going to class compared to what he used to do," said David Yusko, clinical director at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine's Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in Philadelphia.

Shaw said it is possible to become addicted to aggression, but in Whittington's case, that seems unlikely.

"I wouldn't put him in the same category as a serial killer," Shaw said.

Unsure If Whittington Really a Threat

None of these mental health clinicians has treated Whittington, so they said they're not sure if he's really a threat to anyone on campus.

"The guy is in treatment and most likely he's in good hands," Anzia said. She also alluded to the portion of Whittington's essay where he wrote, "I still feel the addictions running through my blood and throughout my body, but now I know how to keep myself composed and keep order in myself, my mind."

"The main thing is that it really is a cry for help," said Shaw. "He clearly wants and needs a psychiatric consultation."

According to Yusko and Shaw, the college did the right thing by taking precautions.

"It's fairly reasonable. You just can't talk about being addicted to killing on a college campus these days, no matter how artistic that expression might be," said Yusko. "There isn't great psychological surety that someone can give about a person's behavior in this situation."

"I can certainly understand the school's concern, especially because of the number of school homicides that have occurred," said Shaw.

Anzia said that publishing the essay was unfair, because it could stigmatize him. It also helped get him barred from campus.

"If he feels shut out, it could make things worse and make him more angry," she said.

Davis said the college doesn't control what the newspaper publishes since it's a student-run organization, and Whittington said he doesn't regret what he wrote or his decision to publish it.

"I wish he hadn't done it, though," said O'Doherty.

Whittington is upset that the school took the action it did, because he's trying to move forward with his life. Whittington was a victim of numerous roadside explosions in Iraq and ultimately lost a finger. He also suffers from nerve damage in his arm, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He received a medical discharge later that year.

Mental health experts say people suffering from PTSD often drink and use illegal drugs to deal with their intense feelings of guilt as well as to dull the feelings of hypervigilance veterans often felt while in combat.

"A couple of months after returning from Iraq, there was an incident and I got angry and drank," Whittington. "I got into a car accident and a few people got hurt."

After serving time in prison for that incident, he returned to his native Baltimore and started taking college classes.

O'Doherty says he poses no threat to anyone and has never threatened anyone on campus.

The college says it's not trying to punish Whittington and is trying to work with him and keep the campus safe at the same time. The college also says it has a number of veterans' support groups on its three campuses, but Whittington doesn't think the college has been supportive of veterans at all. That's why he says that after the semester, he won't be returning to the Community College of Baltimore County.

For now, he has the opportunity to finish his English class online, but will receive incompletes for his other classes because he has not been allowed to attend in person.

"I'm not a threat. I'm just like any other student there trying to get an education and trying to make something out of my life."