Those at Joint Base Lewis-McChord reacted to the news Monday of a soldier's deadly rampage in Afghanistan that left at least 16 civilians dead.
The mood at Joint Base Lewis-McChord was uneasy Monday, as news vans gathered at the main gate and journalists outnumbered customers in some shops.
Many uniformed personnel shrugged off questions about the shootings in Afghanistan. Those who discussed it said they fear the consequences for their fellow troops in-country.
“I’m worried another war might break out,” said Spc. Eric Windley, of Connecticut. “They are going to retaliate.”
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A single soldier’s pointless actions are likely to undo years of effort to build trust between the United States and Afghanistan, he said.
While nothing can justify the murder of civilians, many soldiers who have been through multiple deployments will have seen some of their friends killed in action, said Spc. Joe Neumeyer, of Oklahoma, who spent a year in Iraq. The military’s rules of engagement also can be frustrating to soldiers, who often are not allowed to shoot until someone shoots at them, he said. “But no matter what, what he did was really, really wrong.”
Windley said his unit’s leaders alway encourage troubled soldiers to speak up. “It’s very easy to get help.”
But Jorge Gonzalez, a former member of the 3rd Stryker Brigade and an Iraq veteran, said it can be almost impossible to ask for help while on deployment.
Gonzalez, 32, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after he returned home. He now runs Coffee Strong, a nonprofit Internet cafe near the base whose motto is “Pro-GI; Anti-War.” Paintings on the walls depict soldiers brandishing guitars instead of rifles and lobbing steaming mugs of joe in place of grenades.
Gonzalez said he was surprised that the shooter gunned down women and children, but that the incident itself was not a shock. “This is what happens when you have 10 years of war,” he said. “It kind of fits in with all the other problems at JBLM.”
Blaming the incident on a single, rogue soldier obscures systemic problems that arise when soldiers are deployed repeatedly, Gonzalez said. “There has been no follow-up at Joint Base Lewis-McChord as to why there have been so many problems here,” he said, citing high rates of suicide and domestic violence.
Soldiers are exposed to almost unbearable stress, then often are denied assistance with mental issues, he said. “These soldiers are not being taken care of,” Gonzalez said.
One active-duty noncommissioned officer, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said his experiences in Iraq highlight the dangers posed by soldiers with undiagnosed PTSD. He sought help when he realized his behavior was off-kilter.
“The way I was dealing with stress and anger would have put me in a bad position to make decisions in Iraq or Afghanistan,” the officer said. “The potential of harm to myself or others — it was a possibility.”
Windley said he’s sure the gunman will be brought to justice, but that won’t repair the damage. “This stupid behavior gives the entire armed forces a bad name,” he said.
By early afternoon, Coffee Strong dropped its plans for a vigil to mourn the 16 people who lost their lives in the rampage. A volunteer said the cafe received many calls from people who feared the vigil could be taken as criticism of the thousands of soldiers at the base who did nothing wrong.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491