Did soldier said to have killed Afghan civilians come from 'most troubled base'?

US Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers, was from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, reputedly the most troubled base in the US military.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Aug. 2011 photo, soldiers from the 3rd Stryker Brigade, including Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, take part in an exercise at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Staff Sgt. Bales is suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers.
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Information about the US Army sergeant suspected of wantonly killing 16 Afghan villagers – most of them women and children – is being slowly revealed.

His lawyer has suggested that Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38 years old, married, and the father of two young children, may have carried out the night-time massacre because of earlier trauma – being wounded twice during three previous combat tours in Iraq and recently witnessing at close range the serious wounding of a fellow soldier in Afghanistan.

Was he experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), perhaps in combination with an earlier head injury? These are the kinds of questions Army officials and medical experts are just beginning to probe as US diplomatic and military officials work to restore some semblance of cooperation with Afghan officials and village elders.

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But the horrific episode also revives charges that Bales’ home base – Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) near Tacoma, Wash. – has unusually serious problems ranging from violent episodes involving soldiers at home and in war zones to failings in the base’s command structure.

A timeline of problems at the base, which has sent tens of thousands of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan over the years, can be seen on the Seattle Times web site. But the most recent event has been especially jarring to those on the base (Bales’ family has been moved from their split-level home onto the base for their protection) as well as to those in the greater community.

"My reaction is that I'm shocked," next-door neighbor Kassie Holland told the Associated Press. "I can't believe it was him. There were no signs. It's really sad. I don't want to believe that he did it."

But there are those who could see it coming.

“This was not just a rogue soldier,” says Jorge Gonzalez, an Iraq war veteran who now runs the Coffee Strong GI coffee house and antiwar organization just outside the base. “JBLM is a Rogue Base, with a severe leadership problem.”

“In 10 years of war, JBLM has produced a Kill Team [charged with killing and mutilating civilians for sport], suicide epidemic, denials of PTSD treatment … spousal abuse … murders of civilians (including a park ranger), increased sex crimes, substance abuse, DUIs … and much more,” Gonzalez, who was diagnosed with PTSD when he returned from Iraq, says on Coffee Strong’s web site. “These abuses are not because of a few bad apples, but because of the base’s systematic dehumanization of soldiers and civilians, both in occupied countries and at home.”

The independent military newspaper Stars and Stripes came to a similar conclusion in December 2010.

“Plagued by one scandal after another, from violent mental breakdowns to steroid abuse and allegations of killing for sport, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state this year developed a reputation as the most troubled base in the military,” Stars and Stripes reported. “As [2010] wound down, the Army was conducting a top-to-bottom review of the 5th Stryker Brigade amid reports of misconduct from a wide swath of its soldiers and a failure of its leaders to curtail the issues.”

US Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington recently reported that 285 patients at the Madigan Army Medical Center on JBLM had their PTSD diagnoses reversed. Many soldiers who might have been able to retire with military compensation benefits complained, prompting a review and investigation. Col. Dallas Homas, the medical center’s commander, was removed during the investigation.

"The only fair thing to do is to go back and find those service members who've also had their PTSD reversed by this unit in order to give them clear and unbiased re-evaluations,” Senator Murray told the Seattle Times. “Our service members and their families deserve nothing less."

Visiting the base Friday, Gen. David M. Rodriguez, commanding general of US Army Forces Command, played down any notion that JBLM is somehow more troubled than other US military bases sending thousands of uniformed men and women to combat zones time after time.

"There is nothing different here than most places," said Gen. Rodriguez, who previously served in Afghanistan. "Those things happen…. Everybody knows that doesn't reflect our standards and our values, nor does it reflect the majority of the leaders and soldiers that serve here every day as well as overseas."

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