Afghan Massacre: Soldier’s home base has dark history

Seattle base dubbed ‘most troubled’ by military publication recently oversaw ‘kill team’ trials

Agence France-Presse | Mar 16, 2012

The U.S. soldier held for shooting dead 16 Afghan villagers last week-end was stationed at a military base south of Seattle which has been plagued by scandal and tragedy.

Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), which could in theory host a court martial for the unidentified serviceman, has only just held a series of military trials over a “kill team” accused of the gruesome deaths of Afghan civilians in 2010.

The sprawling base also saw a spike in suicides last year with 12 people taking their lives, amid questions about how the base hospital cares for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Home to more than 40,000 servicemen, plus their families and civilian workers, who live on the base and in surrounding communities, it was dubbed the “most troubled base in the military” by the Stars and Stripes newspaper in 2010.

Jorge Gonzalez, the head of a veteran-run resource centre called Coffee Strong near the base, said he was not surprised at the shooting.

“This was not just a rogue soldier: JBLM is a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem. If Fort Lewis was a college campus, it would have been closed down years ago,” he said in an online statement.

The U.S. soldier behind the latest massacre – reportedly a 38-year-old father of two – left the base in December for his first deployment to Afghanistan after three tours in Iraq, according to U.S. defence officials. He has been flown out of Afghanistan to a U.S. military holding facility and could face the death penalty.

Spokesmen for the base have declined to comment on the accused serviceman, but media reports say his family have been moved onto the base for their own protection. He belongs to the 2nd Infantry Division, 3rd Stryker Brigade, according to media reports. Pentagon spokesman George Little said he is “in his 30s,” but insisted his name will be withheld until charges are brought.

The soldier – whose alleged deeds have sparked warnings of a surge in anti-American violence – was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after a non-combat-related vehicle rollover in Iraq in 2010, according to a defence official, who requested anonymity. Links have been found between TBI and PTSD, but it is not known if he suffers or suffered from PTSD.

But that has not stopped the re-emergence of questions about the treatment of soldiers for the disorder – specifically over whether diagnoses of PTSD were altered by military doctors for hundreds of soldiers.

The Washington Post said a probe of the base’s medical centre is studying assertions by staff members that, from 2007, diagnoses for at least 300 service members were downgraded to lesser conditions on orders of senior medical officials.

A spokesman defended the base’s record, saying it “attempts to provide every soldier access to the care that they need ranging from alcohol abuse, financial issues to PTSD. “This is taken very seriously and the army units through education have attempted to reach out to all leaders and soldiers to take the stigma away of seeking help for any issue in your life.”

The base, a key staging post for servicemen heading for Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, has only just finished a series of court martials over a so-called U.S. army “kill team” behind a string of civilian deaths.

The ringleader of the rogue unit, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, was jailed for life in November over the killings in southern Afghanistan from January-May 2010, in which soldiers cut off fingers as trophies and posed with the corpses.

On New Year’s Day this year, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran from JBLM, who suffered from PTSD, died of exposure after killing a ranger in Mount Rainier National Park and then heading into the back country.

Local congressman Adam Smith, on the House Armed Services Committee, said it was unfair to view the base only in light of incidents like the week-end shooting.

“The actions of a handful of individuals should not be used to taint a base that … has over 40,000 servicemen and women, even more civilians,” said the Democratic lawmaker, whose 9th congressional district covers Lewis-McChord.

He added that “100,000 people come on and off that base every day, and the overwhelming majority of them are serving our country quite well. They deserve our respect and our support.”

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