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Veterans In Baton Rouge Reflect On Military Background Of Victim, Shooter


The people of Baton Rouge, where three police officers were killed a week ago, are burying their dead. One of the victims was an Iraq war veteran. So was the shooter. The shooting deaths of five officers in Dallas followed a similar narrative, and it's weighing heavily on Iraq war vets. Reporter Jesse Hardman spoke with veterans in Baton Rouge.

JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: At 7 a.m., James Grill and Cafe in Denham Springs resembles a high school cafeteria. It's covered in local pride from beloved Louisiana State University purple and gold flags and football helmets to photographs of standout residents. Sixty-six-year-old Joseph Smith says it's almost like there's assigned seats.

JOSEPH SMITH: The table over there against the wall, they are ham radio operators. Then you've got cops that come in and they'll sit at a table over here somewhere.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Fire department.

SMITH: Fire department.

HARDMAN: Smith and four friends sit at their regular table, talking about the news and the old days over bottomless cups of coffee and fluffy biscuits. This clique includes members of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, or VFW. Today's topic is a heavy one. All three shooting victims were from this tiny town of 10,000 people just north of Baton Rouge.

SMITH: You can't help but cry because it's - when you know them, it makes it worse.

HARDMAN: Joseph Smith says he knew Matthew Gerald, one of the deceased. Gerald was an Iraq war veteran who recently joined the Baton Rouge Police Department. Smith relates. He joined the Denham Springs Police Department when he came back from Vietnam in 1971. A Louisiana state police officer stops to greet 80-year-old Eleanor Perkins, a member of the VFW Breakfast Club, and then moves on.

ELEANOR PERKINS: He said he had a good day yesterday because he didn't watch any of the media stuff, so he had a good day. But when he got - he turned around and walked off because he was fixing to start crying. So hard. So horrible.

HARDMAN: The group isn't sure what to make of the fact the shooter, Gavin Long, also served in Iraq and reportedly claimed PTSD from his time there. Joseph Smith, who, like Long, was a Marine, quickly distances himself.

SMITH: I think he was messed up before he went in the military myself. That's my personal opinion.

HARDMAN: Sixty-year-old Navy veteran Randy Sinclair doesn't sympathize with Long, but he acknowledges coming home has been complicated for recent vets.

RANDY SINCLAIR: I've got a nephew who went to Iraq. And he come back, and he's not the same human being that I knew.

HARDMAN: Sinclair, who serves as the local VFW's jambalaya chef at fundraisers, says he's trying to convince his nephew to join the group.

SINCLAIR: I want him to get with these guys. Man, I want him so bad to come over here. These men have been there and done that.

HARDMAN: Sinclair knows the support system he's gotten in his VFW has helped him through some tough times. He's hoping it can help more recent vets cope with the violence that seems to have followed them home. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in Denham Springs, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jesse Hardman
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