As the Army lays out its evidence against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in pretrial hearings, we're left again to contemplate how it might be possible for a respected soldier and father-of-two to have become a mass murderer. Bales' aggressive attorney, John Henry Browne, has suggested that he will use PTSD as part of a defense strategy. The traumatic brain injury Bales suffered is also likely to play a role in the case.
*See also: Robert Bales May Have Been Psychotic
The connection between both conditions and horrific violence is debatable. Yet a second unimaginable case makes that debate even more urgent.
In Sunday's New York Times, Nicolas Kristof writes about Staff Sgt. Dwight Davis Jr. Like Bales, the 25-year-old soldier and husband served admirably. His father, a Philadelphia schools manager, describes Davis in his early years as "goofy," not violent or even troubled.
Yet on Christmas of last year, visiting his family in Delaware, he allegedly ran over a beloved 65-year-old woman as she was walking her dog, shoved her into his car, raped and killed her. After his arrest, Davis admitted to the crime, explaining that he "wanted to kill someone," according to a police affidavit.
The soldier seemed to have transformed utterly from the man he was, and Kristof asks whether Davis' war experience is the reason.
Earlier this year, in a piece about the Bales case, Seattle Weekly talked to Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, the Army's former top psychiatrist, now the chief clinical officer for the District of Columbia's mental health department. Ritchie ticked off a number of symptoms of PTSD and TBI, including nausea, numbing, and flashbacks, but held that horrific violence wasn't one of them. It led her to look for another explanation for Bales' alleged crimes, including the possibility that he had been given an anti-malarial drug linked in some cases to psychosis.
Kristof, however, talked to one brain injury researcher, Bennet Omalu of the University of California at Davis, who said it was possible that TBI could lead to sexual violence.
Such behavior is also associated with PTSD, according to retired General Peter Chiarelli, now head of a Seattle-based non-profit working on brain research. Talking with SW yesterday, Chiarelli says that "someone with PTSD is six times more likely to participate in partner aggression, whether that's domestic violence or sexual assault." What more, Chiarelli says that PTSD, often present after a traumatic brain injury, is associated with violence of all kinds, including against friends and children.
Still, he says that the kind of violence described in the Bales and Smith cases are "way, way" more extreme than what is normally seen. The difficulty in knowing what to pin on PTSD and TBI is compounded by our surprising ignorance, even after all these years of war, about what these conditions do to us. "There are no experts on brain injury or PTSD," Chiarelli quips. "When you get them all together in a room, they all disagree."
We may or may not get clarity when these two awful cases come to trial. But we're sure to get details that help us think about the matter, like the letter from Davis to his dad, quoted by Kristof:
I am going to be honest with you dad. I have killed a lot of men and children. Some that didn't even do anything for me to kill them. Also some that begged for mercy. I have a problem. I think I got addicted to killing people. I could kill someone go to sleep wake up and forget that it ever happened. It got normal for me to be that way. I never wanted to be this way. I just took my job way to serious. I took things to the extreme. Anyone can tell you that I changed. It is like being a completely different person.