The 24-year-old hardcore survivalist drove to Washington State’s Mt. Rainier Park, murdered 34-year-old ranger Margaret Anderson, fled into the wilderness and eventually died from exposure to the area’s harsh winter.
While rarely as violent as Barnes, some of the troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are encountering the most difficult battle of all: Their ability to connect with other people like they used to.
Studies reveal that separation and divorce rates for military couples have increased by 42 percent since 2001.
And each month a soldier is deployed leaves the marriage in greater jeopardy of ending.
Marriage stats for women in the Armed Forces are even more grim. Female military personnel are twice as likely to divorce as their male counterparts, while divorce among enlisted women is three times higher.
According to Huffington Post reporter Kimberly Hefling, 2010 divorce rates for women in the military hovered near eight percent, while the divorce rate for male counterparts was three percent.
Repeated deployments combined with injuries, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug and alcohol abuse all contribute to increased marital tensions. Military officials claim that psychological self-assessment tests, counseling and programs known as "resiliency training" help soldiers, spouses and children adjust to life after a soldier returns from deployment.
And yet divorce, spousal battering, child abuse and even murder continue.
Domestic Violence: An Escalating Problem
Domestic violence has long been an "open secret" in the military, until a 1998 exposé on the CBS television show 60 Minutes shocked U.S. viewers with stories of spousal assaults and murders.
Responding to the public outrage, the Pentagon created a domestic violence task force and developed programs to help mend military families. But members of the now disbanded Pentagon task force concur that domestic violence issues took a backseat once troops were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Family life has now become a casualty of war, as domestic violence cases continue to steadily increase.
Daily Beast journalist Stacy Bannerman points out that fifty percent of veterans suffering from combat stress report perpetrating family violence.
Although recent studies have paid close attention to the domestic conflicts faced by soldiers coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq, social scientists have long recognized that a military career can move violence from the battlefront to the home front.
A 1979 University of New Hampshire study co-written by U.S. Air force Captain John Shwed and Murray Strauss, Ph.D discovered that geographic isolation, low rank, violent assignments and duties aggressive in nature can create abusive spouses and parents.
Shwed and Strauss revealed that "one aspect of life--in this case, one's occupation--tends to carry over to other aspects of life--in this case the family."
Is the Military Still Protecting Violent Soldiers?
One of the greatest concerns for family advocates has been the-deployment of soldiers facing domestic violence and child abuse charges, a clear violation of military policy.
In 2007, 26-year-old Jared Terrasas pleaded guilty to child endangerment after killing his infant son Alexander. Terrasas was previously mandated to complete a 16-week domestic violence class after beating his wife Lucia.
But Terrasas’ trial was delayed and he was shipped off to Iraq before completing the court-ordered counseling. Upon his return home, Terrasas’ behavior deteriorated and eventually resulted in Alexander’s death.
In a similar case, authorities waited two years for Camp LeJeune Marine Jose Aguilar to return from Iraq so that he could be prosecuted for the 2003 murder of his son.
Journalist Kimberly Seals Allers says that military families often joke that "if the military wanted you to have a spouse, they would have issued you one."
She claims the comment reveals what most service men and women believe: that the protection of a soldier comes before the protection of the family.
Random Acts of Violence
Returning soldiers are also perpetrating increased acts of indiscriminate aggression.
For Benjamin Colton Barnes, the random murder of park ranger Margaret Anderson was triggered when he drove through a park checkpoint where rangers were inspecting incoming autos for snow chains.
Barnes, who already had two restraining orders against him to protect his ex-girlfriend Nicole Santos and their child, was suspected in shooting four people at an apartment in Skyway, Washington on New Year’s Eve.
What caused the rampage? While it’s still unexplained, Santos characterized her ex as violent, unstable, and irritable with a passion for guns. She attributed his outbursts to PTSD resulting from his 2007 Iraq deployment.
"I am fearful of what Benjamin is capable of with the small arsenal he has in his home and his recent threat of suicide," she told investigators.
PTSD: A Faulty Conclusion?
The public and the media are quick to assume battlefield-related PTSD whenever "troubled soldier stories" hit the papers, but a good number of these individuals had problems long before entering the military.
For some individuals with prior histories of juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and mental illness, enlistment can offer a structured life, food, housing, travel and a paycheck, along with the chance to utilize aggressive tendencies in a socially acceptable manner.
The son of a retired-marine, records show that Barnes signed up to serve his country after being expelled from high school. Barnes’ downward spiral included losing his job, his apartment and sleeping in his car after being booted from the army for misconduct.
Wired blogger David Dobbs believes we’re rushing to judgment by attributing everything to PTSD, and points out that no record exists of Barnes ever seeing combat.
"Barnes’ crime and his troubles had little to do with his military service, and our collective rush to attribute the crime to PTSD made two enormous but horribly common mistakes: It indulged in a reflexive diagnosis of PTSD for any mental or behavioral problem in any vet; and it erroneously assumed PTSD led frequently to violent behavior."
Alex Horton, a writer for VAntage Point agrees with Dobbs’ assessment and uses Fort Hood shooter Dr. Nidal Hasan as his example.
In 2009, when Hasan killed 13 people and wounded 29 others on base, the public jumped to the conclusion that Hasan was a PTSD victim. But the facts revealed that Hasan’s violence was generated by anti-U.S. government sentiment, and personal religious beliefs that he’d fostered for several years.
"Faulty assumptions are dangerous…sensationalist conclusions are designed to help sell newspapers and generate hits rather than responsibly inform."
PTSD: An Opportunity to Grow
While acknowledging that PTSD can play a role in the lives of soldiers, Horton also expressed concerns that the behavior of a few may cast returning vets in an unfavorable light.
He reminds us that the majority of soldiers overcoming PTSD go on to lead productive, rewarding lives.
"PTSD and other mental health issues don’t just lead to challenges, but also to post-traumatic growth for many people. And that’s a story that needs to be told more often."