As if to explain the massacre of villagers in Afghanistan, local and international news media have been telling us - again - that Joint Base Lewis McChord is a "troubled" post, perhaps the worst of U.S. Army bases. But does that tell us anything about why the world-changing mass murder of 16 civilians was allegedly undertaken by one of JBLM's demonstrably troubled sergeants?
Long before the US soldier suspected of slaying 16 Afghan villagers was identified as an Army sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the installation had earned a reputation as the most troubled outpost in the American military.
Proof of this was that the "army station has come under scrutiny as the home of several soldiers involved in wartime atrocities in 2010 [the "kill team"] and a base scarred by a record number of suicides last year."
Most importantly, said the Telegraph, Stars and Stripes had called Lewis McChord "the most troubled base in the military" two years ago. The London paper also picked up a quote from Jorge Gonzalez, the veteran and activist who runs Coffee Strong, the Tillicum soldiers' hangout. "This was not a rogue soldier," Gonzalez declared, calling Lewis McChord "a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem."
"Troubled base" was the headline in the Los Angeles Times as well, which led its story with a retelling of the planned 2010 shooting of Salt Lake City citizens by Spec. Brandon Barrett, who was preemptively killed by a Salt Lake cop, continuing:
Since then, the base has become one of the most troubled in the 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 killings, suicides, assaults and other crimes linked to soldiers from the base.
That was the story in Seattle media and on national TV. In its report, the "Troubled History of American Base," ABC said that Lewis McChord's "troubled and bloody history" ranged "From assaults on American authorities in the U.S. to the 'thrill killing' of other Afghan civilians," and cited "some of the most infamous incidents" in the last three years.
They included ex-soldier Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, who killed a park ranger after fleeing a New Year's Eve house-party shooting, AWOL Staff Sgt. Nathan Ryan Smith, 29, who raped and tortured two women, and drug-addicted AWOL Private Dakota Wolf, 19, who killed a teenage girl in Kirkland.
It, too, cited Coffee Strong's Jorge Gonzalez (who is also personally calling for a congressional investigation of the base). He said he wasn't surprised the accused Afghanistan village killer was from Lewis McChord, since that's where "we're seeing soldiers committing suicide ... murder and domestic violence."
That's true, of course. Lewis McChord is, after all, now the West Coast's biggest military base, an armed city of more than 60,000 military and civilian personnel and a pivotal post in the waging of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is where tens of thousands of soldiers, who rotate in and out of the battle zones, alternately learn to kill or be killed in between trying to survive domestic life on the homefront.
It's an ages-old story of the guaranteed conflict of war and peace and how some endure the transition better than others. I could write a book about it. And did. In part, it traces the battle-related condition called "irritable heart" that afflicted Civil War vets, which became known as shell shock by WWII, and earned the name of post traumatic stress disorder by Vietnam.
Unfortunately, a jumble of stories about Lewis McChord's crime doesn't prove it's a whole lot different than other bases, and falls short of addressing PTSD, which may be the primary contributor to the massacre.
Nor do the stories inform us much about what's behind failures on the battlefield, by base command, and among mental health treatment specialists - the wide-ranging basis for Stars and Stripes "most-troubled" base declaration in 2010.
For sure, an anecdotal collection of arguably related tragedies says little about why one of Lewis McChord's trainees left his post in the dark of night, walked to a sleeping village, and allegedly began shooting and stabbing women and children to death - when thousands of other Lewis McChord trainees didn't.
Fortunately, we're learning more about that now, with word that the accused Stryker sergeant, a 38-year-old trained sniper, suffered a traumatic brain injury from a vehicle accident in Iraq, but was cleared to return to duty. We also know he did three war tours in Iraq, and was cleared for his fourth deployment, in December, to Afghanistan.
He reputedly has admitted to the killings and there are reports that alcohol was involved.
Obviously, there are more defining details to come. Maybe one of these day we'll begin to learn what was troubling him.