Lewis-McChord and the Afghan Massacre

Lewis-McChord and the Afghan Massacre

Why the base's "troubles" aren't as unique as some would have you think.

As if to explain the massacre of villagers in Afghanistan, local and international news media have been saying, again, that Joint Base Lewis-McChord is a “troubled” post, perhaps the worst of all U.S. Army bases. But does that tell us anything about why the world- and possibly war-changing mass murder of 16 civilians was allegedly undertaken by one of JBLM’s demonstrably troubled sergeants?

As The Daily Telegraph of London puts it in a story headlined “Afghanistan massacre: soldier was stationed at ‘troubled base’ “: “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 important, said the TelegraphStars and Stripes had called Lewis-McChord “the most troubled base in the military” in 2010. The London paper also picked up a quote from Jorge Gonzalez, the veteran and activist who runs Coffee Strong, the Lakewood soldiers’ hangout. “This was not a rogue soldier,” Gonzalez declared, calling Lewis-McChord “a rogue base, with a severe leadership problem.”

“Troubled U.S. base” declared 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 too. In its report, “Afghan Killings: 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” of the past 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.

An Associated Press story, “Afghanistan Suspect’s Base Had 2010 Killing Case,” also cited Coffee Strong’s 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, pivotal 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, learn to kill or be killed in between trying to survive domestic life on the home front.

It’s an age-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. [It’s called Home Front: The Government’s War on Soldiers, and you should read it. —Ed.] In part, it traces the battle-related condition called “irritable heart” by afflicted Civil War vets, shell shock in WWII, and post-traumatic stress disorder since Vietnam.

Unfortunately, a jumble of stories about Lewis-McChord’s crimes don’t prove it’s a whole lot different from other bases. They fall short in addressing PTSD, which may have been the primary contributor to the massacre. Nor do these 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” 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.

There are obviously more defining details to come. Maybe one of these days we’ll begin to learn what was troubling him.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

More in News & Comment

Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Washington health officials discuss response to new COVID variant

Things will be handled with Omicron variant similar to the Delta variant.

File photo
As new COVID-19 variant looms, vaccination disparities linger in King County

County data shows gaps among age, geography and race.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn
King County Councilmember Dunn will challenge Rep. Kim Schrier for U.S. Congress seat

The current County Councilmember would be following in his late mother’s footsteps

Garbage at the Cedar Hills Regional Landfill in Maple Valley. FILE PHOTO
King County and Port of Seattle to collaborate on waste-to-fuel study

The study is aimed at identifying logistics of developing aviation fuel out of municipal garbage.

file photo
Department of Health announces QR code verification program to prove vaccination status

WA Verify is intended to make vaccine verification simpler and more efficient.

Mid-afternoon traffic on northbound Interstate 5 on Nov. 22 near Everett. Dan Bates/The Herald
Thanksgiving traffic forecast is heavier than pre-pandemic

Drivers and ferry riders could be in for long waits, depending on when they go.

Elaine Simons, former foster mother of Jesse Sarey, addresses a crowd outside the Maleng Regional Justice Center on Aug. 24, 2020, moments after Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson was formally charged with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in the May 31, 2019, shooting death of 26-year-old Sarey in front of a north Auburn convenience store. File photo
Jesse Sarey’s family wants people to know who the real Jesse was

He was killed by Auburn police officer Jeffrey Nelson in 2019.

Comparison map between current district map and proposed draft. (Screenshot from King County’s website)
King County proposes redistricting map, asks for feedback from public

Public invited to comment at November 30 public hearing.

Patti Cole-Trindall
King County Executive appoints Patti Cole-Tindall as interim sheriff

Cole-Tindall has a background in the sheriff’s office and county government.

A Snoqualmie Officer was involved in a shooting Tuesday night, Nov. 16. Photo courtesy of the Bellevue Police Department.
Man killed by Snoqualmie Police was homeless, living in car

The 33-year-old man who was killed by a Snoqualmie police officer late… Continue reading

The Washington State Redistricting Commission held a public meeting over Zoom on Monday night to draw the final legislative and congressional district boundaries. Most of the five-hour session was spent in "caucus meetings" which were unavailable to the viewing public. (Washington State Redistricting Commission)
Bipartisan commission fails to draw new political boundaries

For the first time in state history, the Supreme Court will define new congressional and legislative districts.

Homeless encampment in a wooded area in Auburn on Aug. 27, 2021. Photo by Henry Stewart-Wood/Sound Publishing
What the history of homelessness in our region can teach us about our current crisis

A talk with the author of “Skid Road: On the Frontier of Health and Homelessness in an American City.”