The base of the soldier alleged to have murdered civilians in Afghanistan is being described as the “most troubled” in America.
The independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes says that Joint Base Lewis-McChord, 45 miles south of Seattle and the largest on the West Coast, has had a record number of suicides, has had several investigations into poor treatment of soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and was the base of a “kill team” convicted of murdering civilians for sport in Afghanistan as well as other present and past soldiers responsible for violent crimes.
The base’s Madigan Army Medical Center is being investigated for allegedly altering the diagnoses of hundreds of soldiers suffering from PTSD to lesser conditions in order to save on disability costs paid by the army.
Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, who allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in a March 11 rampage, has been based at Lewis-McChord for ten years.
Gen. David Rodriguez, the head of U.S. Forces Command, said that the base was no better or worse than others.
“Again, those things happen. Everybody knows (the rampage) doesn’t reflect our standards and our values,” he said.
The newspaper agrees that some figures show crime rates consistent with army averages, but the base has been home to high profile cases including the murder of a Mount Rainier national park ranger, a family murder-suicide of a wife and 6-year-old son and a soldier who allegedly tried to hire a hit man to kill his wife and his superior officer and threatened to blow up the state capitol.
Last year Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a Lewis-McChord soldier, was convicted in the killing of Afghan civilians with three other soldiers who had been deemed fit for combat at Lewis-McChord. The four had posed in trophy-style shots next to bodies.
In court, Gibbs compared yanking out an Afghan victim’s tooth to “like keeping the antlers off the deer that you shoot.”
Retired General James Dubik told the newspaper that “these are major incidents and they are indicative of some kind of serious problem that exists on (base).”
Dubik said that America has asked “too much of too few Americans for too long” and the combat stress resulting from multiple tours is a “natural consequence of having to go to that well too often.”
But he also stressed that the base’s problems should not be automatically linked to Bales’ rampage.
“It’s like a thunderstorm …You can’t say one thing causes a thunderstorm. A set of things have to come together to create a thunderstorm,” he said.
A soldier formally at the base, Kevin Baker, told Star and Stripes that blaming the base for Bale’s actions is “really just doing containment for the military.”
“The entire military is in crisis. There’s more suicides among soldiers nationwide in the last six years than there have been (soldiers) killed in combat. There needs to be an investigation and overhaul of the entire military culture in this country,” Baker said.
Baker co-founded a veterans’ and active service members’ anti-war group called March Forward. He believes the Army has ignored combat-related stress and over-deployment problems among soldiers.
Jorge Gonzalez, an Iraq veteran who runs Coffee Strong, a nonprofit Internet cafe near the base whose motto is “Pro-GI; Anti-War,” said that the latest incident in Afghanistan was not a surprise to him.
He said that soldiers are exposed to almost unbearable stress, then often denied assistance with mental issues.
Bales’ defense team is reportedly building their case on PTSD.
Gonzalez told the BBC that soldiers “wouldn’t be able to function and perform their mission if they were to genuinely compensate and allow the proper healing to take place.”
“People come in [to the cafe] with high levels of anxiety,” he says. “You can almost see it in their face in terms of the way they are looking over their shoulders and constantly looking out of the window and are just kind of generally suspicious and just distrustful.”
“This is what happens when you have 10 years of war,” he said. “It kind of fits in with all the other problems at [Lewis-McChord].”
But Seattle-based mental health therapist and PTSD counselor Reid Stell told the BBC that he was not optimistic that the latest Afghan rampage would lead to change:
“This is what it takes,” he says. “A big headline-grabbing event, but will it be the bad apple argument.”
And according to the New York Times, the court-martial of Bales will likely take several years.
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