Joint Base Lewis-McChord has sent tens of thousands of troops to the front lines in recent wars, and most have performed their service honorably. But the base has grappled with tough issues, and now it's back in the headlines with reports that one of its soldiers is the suspect in the slayings of Afghan civilians.
In November, one of the highest-profile war-crimes prosecutions of the Afghan war reached a climax with the court-martial of Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, a Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier convicted in the 2010 murders of three unarmed Afghan civilians.
“Staff Sgt. Gibbs betrayed his oath. He betrayed his unit, and with the flag of this nation emblazoned across his chest, thousands of miles from home, he betrayed his nation,” Maj. Robert Stelle, the prosecutor, told a military panel.
The conviction offered a kind of closure in a case that had played out at the base over the year and included accounts of the killing of civilians by Gibbs and three other soldiers who posed in trophy-style shots next to bodies.
The base has sent tens of thousands of men and women to the front lines of wars in the post-9/11 era, and most have performed their service honorably. Currently, more than 4,500 Lewis-McChord service members are in Afghanistan, and more than 5,000 are to be deployed in the months ahead.
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On Sunday, Lewis-McChord was back in the headlines with reports that a soldier from the Western Washington base is the suspect in the Kandahar province slayings of 16 Afghan civilians. The killings are likely to further undermine the military campaign in that nation.
The Associated Press — citing a U.S. official — described the suspect as a Lewis-McChord staff sergeant who had been assigned to support a special operations unit that pairs with local villagers to establish a kind of armed neighborhood watch. His name and his unit had not been identified.
A U.S. official told ABC News the soldier is married with two children, and served three tours in Iraq. This was his first tour in Afghanistan, where he has been since early December, the official said.
Lewis-McChord service members currently in Afghanistan include soldiers from the 14th Engineer Battalion, I Corps and the 42nd Military Police Brigade.
The largest base unit in Afghanistan is the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry division, a brigade built up around eight-wheeled Stryker vehicles. It deployed late last year to southern Afghanistan. Though most of the soldiers are in Zabul province, some are in Kandahar province, where the killings occurred.
The 3rd Brigade had deployed three previous times to Iraq and lost 108 soldiers during those tours of duty. Before heading to Afghanistan in November, brigade soldiers gathered around a memorial to their war dead for a departure ceremony.
They are scheduled to stay in Afghanistan for a year.
In the late spring, another base Stryker unit, the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, is scheduled to deploy for a nine-month tour of duty.
The 2nd Brigade is composed of battalions that deployed to Afghanistan in 2009-10, among them a unit that included Gibbs and the three other soldiers convicted in the killings of the three unarmed Afghans in Kandahar province.
In a February interview with reporters, 2nd Brigade commander Col. Barry Huggins — who had not previously led the battalions in Afghanistan — said the overwhelming number of soldiers conducted themselves well during that tour of duty. He noted that one of those battalions is scheduled to receive the Presidential Unit Citation — the nation’s highest award for a unit — for its performance in 2009-10.
But in the court-martials last year, in a red-carpeted courtroom on base, prosecutors again and again focused on what had gone wrong that year, revisiting the details of the crimes as family members of the accused sat in the gallery. Soldiers testified to frequent drug use and plots to kill unarmed civilians and make them appear to be legitimate combat deaths.
Gibbs in court compared yanking out an Afghan victim’s tooth to “like keeping the antlers off the deer that you shoot.”
The base has grappled with other tough issues, including a surge in suicides to a record level in 2012 and complaints by some soldiers that doctors had reversed their diagnoses of post-traumatic stress.
There also have been acts of violence in the Puget Sound area involving the base’s soldiers or former soldiers.
Lewis-McChord, a sprawling complex of red brick buildings, training fields and forests, is about 45 miles south of Seattle and has grown quickly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Base officials have said that any community the size of the base is bound to have its problems and that its reputation has been tarred by “a small number of highly visible but isolated episodes” that don’t accurately reflect the remarkable accomplishments of its service members, including their work overseas and the creation of programs to support returning soldiers.
This year, after more than a decade of war, the Pentagon has tapped base soldiers to play a key role as the U.S. shrinks its troop strength in Afghanistan and turns over more of the war-fighting effort to Afghan troops.
Already, 3rd Brigade soldiers are partnering with Afghan troops on patrols in southern Afghanistan.
In the months ahead, 2nd Brigade soldiers will be flying to Afghanistan to take up position in Kandahar province.
In his February meeting with reporters, Huggins said he is confident in the character, compassion and combat readiness of his soldiers.
“We’re going to perform the mission that we were sent to do. Well-trained. Well-led and well-equipped,” Huggins said. “And we’re going to come back with honor.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com