Media wastes no time portraying veterans as crazed killers after airport shooting

Alleged shooter, Esteban Santiago captured on security footage -released by TMZ- at the Fort Lauderdale Airport.

In the aftermath of the shooting up of the luggage claim area at Florida’s Fort Lauderdale International Airport, the media wasted no time in taking advantage of the shooter’s “veteran” status.

A member both of the Puerto Rico and Alaska National Guard, Esteban Santiago was initially reported to have had a military ID on him when he sprung from the unsecured area’s restroom with his Walther PPS M1 9mm pistol and opened fire. After killing and wounding several people, he surrendered to a Broward County Sheriff’s Deputies when he ran out of ammunition.

In the aftermath of the incident, 13 people had been shot, several of them fatally. Santiago now faces a possible death penalty for his heinous act.

Before long, reputable news sources were reporting on Santiago’s military service, citing his “military training,” the “nearly a dozen military medals” he had earned in his nine-year tenure of service as a combat engineer (which ended on a bad note) and less than one year in Iraq while the US military packed up shop to leave the country.

Screenshot from Palm Beach Post
Screenshot from Palm Beach Post

While it is true that Santiago had 10 awards with the US Army, roughly half of them were received for essentially “showing up”- from the Army Service Ribbon to the Armed Forces Reserve Medal and Army Good Conduct Medal. While Santiago had indeed earned the Combat Action Ribbon, the time in which he had served in Iraq was relatively quiet as US forces were beginning their withdraw from Iraq. This is in no way discredits those who did see action in that time- it merely points out that the exaggerated caricature the media drew of Santiago being a hardened and grizzled combat veteran are just that- exaggerated.

Still, buzzwords such as “PTSD” and “veteran” came into play with the mainstream media. NBC New York immediately sprung into action with a wanton “research” piece that highlighted “high profile mass shootings carried out by veterans and active duty soldiers over the past 25 years“- and in doing so, painted a big target on the backs of veterans everywhere who struggle with the side-effects of service and/or lawfully own weapons.


Never mind that literally anyone could have done this. Never mind that the area he opened fire in was unsecured and could have been just as easily attacked by an armed person coming from that awkward in-between zone between your luggage and rental car. Never mind that the guy had been the respective radars of both local and federal radar for outlandish actions and mannerisms. To many reporting agencies, none of that matters.

To many mainstream media outlets, the man was a veteran with mental health issues- and little sells better than the perpetual myth of a “walking time bomb.”

To make matters worse, some select law enforcement officials even rallied for a “no-gun list” for people with mental illnesses. While something to that effect already exists (in a manner that already pushes the envelope on both Constitutional rights and medical privacy laws), apparently it isn’t enough in a time when men and women -whom the bulk of the country had no problem arming and sending to fight in unwinnable wars on their behalf- run a minuscule chance of becoming involved with hate groups, targeting police officers or committing a bizarre and senseless act of violence in an airport.

In short, the “perfect storm” that haphazardly conditions the public to correlate “veterans,” “PTSD” and “firearms” into “tragedy” is a slippery slope that no doubt will not only suggest ostracizing the most deserving of citizens from their rights but also will likely deter veterans who need help from seeking it.

There are countless veterans of combat in America today who have dealt with the horrors of war and the stressors of service. Many of them are lawfully armed, many lead very productive lives and new careers, including Law Enforcement and even as members of Congress. There are always exceptions to this and in most cases, they are dealt with accordingly. In the case of Santiago, his firearms were returned him following his release from a mental health facility and subsequent dismissal of investigation by the FBI.

However, the matter goes far beyond the continued media caricature of the “unhinged veteran” or the matter of who can and cannot obtain firearms. The issue strikes a deep nerve within veterans who -up until Friday- were considering seeking some sort of help for a myriad of mental health issues. Talk among veterans long enough and you will hear some warn you about what to tell and omit when it comes to speaking with mental health professionals- while some of their advice is based on conspiracy theories and rumors, there is an element of truth in others.

In short, between the media’s hyping of incidents where service members committed acts of violence, a stigma surrounding mental health and a growing culture of veterans who are afraid to seek it (be it the threat of ostracization, being treated like a second-class citizen or the threat of losing fundamental rights), something like this may inevitably happen again due to the short-sightedness of the nation’s responses.

Human beings do awful things. Sometimes we do them because we were born with crossed wires. Sometimes we do them because we saw something horrible or have an imbalance of barely-quantifiable chemicals in our body. Sometimes we do awful things because we are -at our core- awful people. This is a human problem, not uniquely a veteran one.

While this attack was no doubt committed by a veteran, the careless and wanton response by the media and some elected officials has done little more than create potential for a deeper rift between service members who may struggle and the help they so desperately seek in quiet agony. By contributing to this rift, we have only assured the fact that there will be more than thirteen casualties as the result of an attack on an airport baggage terminal by one man who decided to made a choice to harm others.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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