The Afghanistan massacre has drawn blaring headlines, but problems seen at Joint Base Lewis-McChord may reflect only its large size.
Is there something wrong with Joint Base Lewis-McChord?
The question attracted wide media attention last week after Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, of Lake Tapps, emerged as the suspect in the March 11 massacre of 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children.
Bales was stationed at Lewis-McChord for more than a decade.
Major international newspapers and television networks connected the massacre to other events at Lewis-McChord: A record number of suicides, several investigations into the treatment of soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a string of high-profile crimes involving present and past local soldiers.
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Invariably, the reporting resurrected a label that military newspaper Stars and Stripes pinned on the base south of Tacoma in 2010: That of the “most troubled base in the military.”
The coverage prompted Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., to call a news conference Friday during a visit to Lewis-McChord so he could rebut the reports.
Rodriguez called the headlines “unfortunate” and said there’s nothing that sets Lewis-McChord apart from other major bases as the Army faces challenges in sending soldiers on multiple combat deployments.
Others aren’t so sure. A former Lewis-McChord commander says escalating combat stress from serial deployments combined with problems in leadership on the base and in the nation’s capital have contributed to the troubles.
So is Lewis-McChord “the most troubled base?” Is it “a base on the brink,” as the Los Angeles Times has claimed?
A look beyond the headlines:
Q: Does Lewis-McChord have a problem with soldier suicides and PTSD claims?
A: Nobody would answer no to this question. The base in 2011 had its worst year for soldier suicides. Twelve took their own lives, up from nine in each of the previous two years.
But the increase is in line with an Army trend. Active-duty Army suicides increased from 80 in 2003 to 164 in 2011.
Individual bases saw different increases at different times.
In 2010, 22 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, took their own lives. Fort Bragg, Calif., is investigating its unit for injured and wounded soldiers because of a sudden rise in suicides this year.
The Army has poured resources into halting soldier suicides, providing hotlines, confidential counseling and training for peers to recognize depression in colleagues.
Lewis-McChord has one of the largest staffs of behavioral-health professionals in the Army, with 227 specialists. Still, soldiers fall through the gaps in that safety net.
Spc. Derrick Kirkland killed himself at Lewis-McChord in March 2010 even though his colleagues in Iraq took pains to send him home because of his suicide attempts while deployed, according to a report last year. He appeared stable when he spoke to a psychiatrist at Madigan Army Medical Center, an Army investigation showed.
Lately, Madigan has been in the spotlight because of a forensic psychiatry team that reviewed PTSD diagnoses for soldiers seeking medical retirements.
Sometimes the team caught soldiers in lies; other times it appeared to be overly skeptical of soldiers’ testimony about their combat experiences.
The Army is reviewing 285 cases of soldiers who passed through the unit since 2007, and it has overruled six diagnoses.
Q: Do records show a disproportionate number of crimes committed by Lewis-McChord soldiers?
A: Not if you compare it with the Armywide rate.
Granted, the number of crimes involving soldiers assigned to the Army-Air Force base is higher than five years ago. There was a 27 percent increase in misdemeanors last year compared with 2010: 4,874 crimes compared with 3,812. There were nine additional felonies, 319 versus 310, during the same period. The previous high in the past five years was in 2008, with 4,181 misdemeanors and 413 felonies.
But Lewis-McChord has added several thousand more soldiers since then.
In 2010, Lewis-McChord’s rate of crimes against people and property was lower than the Armywide rate.
There were 10.33 crimes for every 1,000 soldiers based at Lewis-McChord, compared with the Armywide rate of 12.81. Lewis-McChord’s property-crime rate was 4.82, compared with 5.83 Armywide.
Lewis-McChord spokesman J.C. Mathews said the base received that data from the office of the Army’s top cop, the provost marshal general. Statistics from 2011 were unavailable.
Base officials say a growth in crime is a natural result of having more soldiers on post.
Q: Are Lewis-McChord’s significant growth and deployment schedule to blame for its problems?
A: Lewis-McChord is the largest military base on the West Coast, with more than 40,000 active-duty soldiers and airmen. It secured that status when it became a joint Army and Air Force base in 2010.
Its active-duty ranks have grown substantially since 2003, and thousands of those soldiers have served multiple overseas tours.
Lewis-McChord has three combat brigades, totaling about 12,000 soldiers and all built around the eight-wheeled armored Stryker vehicles.
The most-deployed front-line infantry unit at Lewis-McChord is the 3rd (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the Army’s original Stryker unit. It is on its fourth tour of at least one year, the same as 14 other brigades across the Army.
The two other Lewis-McChord Stryker brigades have had two or fewer deployments.
No local brigades are among the five Armywide that have each deployed five times since the wars began.
Before he was sent back to the U.S. to face murder charges, Bales served with 3rd Brigade on all of its deployments: three to Iraq and one to Afghanistan.
Dr. Harry Croft, a former Army doctor and psychiatrist who says he’s evaluated more than 7,000 veterans for PTSD, said the rampage is “clearly a wake-up call for the military to take a closer look into the impact on soldiers who serve multiple tours in some of the same regions.”
But Christopher Pawloski, a former Fort Lewis prosecutor, questioned the idea that multiple deployments lead to violent crime.
He pointed out that there were four homicide cases during his time at the local base, and three involved soldiers who never deployed or deployed for only a short time.