SEATTLE — The call would soon become excruciatingly familiar: A 28-year-old Army specialist from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, recently home from Afghanistan, had walked into a parking garage in Salt Lake City with a full set of body armor, ammunition clips and his AR-15 rifle.
Five weeks before the 2010 incident, Spc. Brandon Barrett had gone absent without leave after a drunken-driving arrest near the sprawling military base in Washington state and had begun sending ominous messages to friends. “About to show the world they shouldn’t (mess) with soldiers back from a deployment,” he said in one.
Barrett died after firing at a police officer, and Lewis-McChord was rocked by questions about how a soldier so angry had been able to go AWOL in plain sight for weeks.
Since then, the base has become one of the most troubled in the U.S. Army. This week, accusations that a Lewis-McChord sergeant in southern Afghanistan shot to death at least 16 civilians were added to the dozens of cases of murders, suicides, assaults and other crimes linked to soldiers from the base.
The largest military base on the West Coast, with more than 60,000 military and civilian personnel, Lewis-McChord is one of the main infantry engines for Iraq and Afghanistan. Lately, the base has earned a reputation for a series of horrific crimes emanating from there, including those by a “kill team” of Stryker brigade soldiers accused of murdering Afghan civilians for sport, a father accused of water-boarding his child and a soldier accused of dousing his wife’s legs with lighter fluid and setting her on fire.
Twelve suicides were reported last year among Lewis-McChord soldiers, and earlier this year, a 24-year-old Iraq war veteran shot and killed a park ranger at Mount Rainier National Park.
In February, the head of the base’s Madigan medical center was temporarily removed from duty after reports that diagnoses were overturned for hundreds of soldiers scheduled to receive help for post-traumatic stress disorder, allegedly in some cases in an attempt to save money.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has asked the Army surgeon general to launch a full investigation into how combat stress cases are handled at Lewis-McChord. Some soldiers report that they have long faced obstacles getting help for combat stress, with much of the base’s focus placed on preparing soldiers for new combat deployment.
The 38-year-old staff sergeant who reportedly turned himself in after the rampage in Afghanistan was attached to the 3rd Stryker Brigade combat team, part of the 2nd Infantry Division, out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, according to a congressional source. The reported father of two has been in the Army for 11 years.
He had already served three tours in Iraq, where he suffered a traumatic brain injury, according to news reports. He was on his first deployment in Afghanistan, a U.S. official said.
The reaction around Lewis-McChord on Monday was largely one of stunned sadness, tinged with a dose of fatalism.
“It’s surprising, but it’s no longer a shock,” said Jorge Gonzalez, director of GI Voice, a group of mainly Lewis-McChord veterans calling for better mental health care for soldiers. “I just keep expecting, what else is going to happen out of this base?”
Army analysts say combat stress isn’t solely to blame for the record levels of suicides — and the substance abuse, domestic violence and assault — plaguing soldiers throughout the Army. The problems also stem from the normal domestic disputes and financial troubles in any large population of young men and women, the analysts say. Lewis-McChord officials say the base’s troubles are no worse than those at other U.S. military facilities with large troop numbers and heavy combat deployments.
Lewis-McChord has brought in a large number of psychiatrists to help troubled soldiers and has made it a priority for commanders to make sure their troops get help. The Army also has instituted a large number of new programs to help fight combat stress, including mental health screenings immediately upon troops’ return from deployments.
Service members and their families have long complained about the difficulty of getting good mental health services at Lewis-McChord, saying that soldiers are discouraged by their local sergeants or face stigma among peers. Many say they are handed prescriptions for an anti-anxiety or sleeping medication and dismissed.
Physicians at Madigan have been overwhelmed, many soldiers say, by the flood of troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan looking for help. Behavioral health visits rose sharply in 2010 to 101,000 from 93,000 the previous year and then increased again in 2011.
“I told them I couldn’t sleep, and they kept giving me pamphlets like, ‘Don’t drink a lot of caffeine before bed.’ I came in telling them I thought I was losing my mind, and all they had was PowerPoint seminars and workbooks,” said Greg Miller, who served as an infantryman in Iraq out of Lewis-McChord but was recently discharged.
Family members at the base tell stories of badgering the health care staff at Madigan for help, only to wait for hours at a walk-in clinic or be accused of faking symptoms to gain disability benefits.
For those reasons, there is a degree of sympathy for the soldier in custody in the Afghanistan shootings.
“Of course, what has happened is a complete atrocity. At the same time, it’s disheartening how the public and the Army and the president jumps to bash this soldier (who) has served our country for three combat tours,” said an Army wife from Lewis-McChord who has battled to get mental health help for her husband.
“When is America going to leave the mall and realize that we are at war, and that our men in uniform can only take so much before they break?” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to prevent reprisals against her husband.
In Barrett’s case, there were few if any red flags. The young serviceman had passed a mental health review after returning from his deployment, according to a report obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Colleagues and friends at first reported no strange behavior, though his family said it was unusual that he didn’t want to play the combat video games that previously had been his passion.
Only after being reprimanded in front of his fellow troops for the DUI arrest and being threatened with losing his scheduled leave did Barrett suddenly disappear. Base authorities at first failed to directly contact his family in Arizona — who thought Barrett had come home on ordinary leave — despite repeated warnings from colleagues about his strange messages, investigators found.
“Watch the news,” he said in one.
Harry Croft, a former Army physician and psychiatrist who has reviewed thousands of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among service members, said repeated deployments such as those experienced by many soldiers at Lewis-McChord can have a wearing effect on soldiers’ ability to recover.
“Even when they’re home, in their minds, they’re getting ready for the next deployment,” said Croft, whose book, “I Always Sit With My Back to the Wall,” explores the origins of combat-related stress. “And they don’t want to unwind too much, because they know they’re going back to the same place, and they need to stay ready and alert.”
Source: Kim Murphy, “Soldier accused in Afghan killings was from troubled US base,” Los Angeles Times, March 13, 2012.