Sgt. Robert Bales: Defense team begins building case on PTSD
In the killing of 16 Afghan villagers, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales' defense team may build their case on post traumatic stress disorder. Though PTSD can be connected to aberrant and violent behavior, it's a hard case to make in court.
As Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales sits in an isolated cell at the US military prison in Leavenworth, Kan., waiting to learn of formal charges for wantonly killing 16 Afghan villagers in a night time rampage a week ago, supporters and his lawyer are beginning to build a defense case.Skip to next paragraph
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The details will be unique to Sgt. Bales. But inevitably they boil down to what hundreds of thousands of GIs have experienced over 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan: the sometimes almost unbearable stress of violent combat and the strains of military life on individuals and their families.
In Bales’ case, according to initial reports from family members and the Seattle attorney they have engaged, that includes injuries during three previous tours in Iraq, witnessing at close hand the death and dismemberment of fellow soldiers, and financial difficulties on the home front at Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma, Wash.
That’s the initial contention of Bales' civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, who has cited post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a possible element leading to a horrific episode that killed and injured mainly Afghan women and children.
PTSD – called “soldier’s heart” during the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, and “battle fatigue” in World War II – is as old as combat itself. Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a physically uninjured soldier who went blind when the soldier next to him was killed. Studies estimate that nearly 30 percent of Vietnam veterans (some 830,000) have experienced some level of PTSD.
In 2008, the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis organization, reported that nearly 20 percent of military service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan – some 300,000 at that point in the wars – reported symptoms of PTSD or major depression.
In addition, RAND reported, “Researchers found about 19 percent of returning service members report that they experienced a possible traumatic brain injury [TBI] while deployed, with 7 percent reporting both a probable brain injury and current PTSD or major depression.”
A recent Army study on health problems noted that soldiers in stressful situations – either while deployed or back home – may have “a strong urge to use alcohol or drugs to try to get sleep or not think about things that happened” in combat. (There have been reports – denied by Bales’ lawyer – that Bales had been drinking before the Afghan villagers were killed.)
"Each soldier can be adversely affected by one or more physical or behavioral health issues at the same time but each in very different ways," the Army study says. "Leaders and healthcare providers now recognize that many individuals who suffer from PTSD or depression are at greater risk for alcohol and substance abuse, aggressive behavior and failed relationships."
Major concerns have included suicide levels and instances of spouse abuse, including murder.