Is Lewis-McChord really 'most troubled base in the military'?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2012 

TACOMA, Wash. — Is there something wrong with Joint Base Lewis-McChord?

The question attracted wide media attention last week after a soldier stationed there for the last decade, 38-year-old Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in a March 11 rampage. Reports have surfaced that trauma and stress from multiple combat tours, possibly mixed with alcohol, might have sent the married father of two over the edge.

Some connected the massacre to other problems at the base south of Tacoma, Wash.: a record number of suicides, several investigations into the treatment of soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a "kill team" convicted of murdering civilians for sport in Afghanistan and a string of other crimes involving present and past soldiers.

They resurrected a label given by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in 2010: the "most troubled base in the military."

Gen. David Rodriguez, the head of U.S. Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., called the headlines "unfortunate" and said the entire Army faces challenges sending soldiers on multiple combat deployments.

"There is nothing different here than at most places," he said. "Again, those things happen. Everybody knows (the rampage) doesn't reflect our standards and our values."

Others aren't so sure that the base should get a free pass. Army veteran Jorge Gonzalez, who runs a Lakewood, Wash., coffee shop that assists soldiers, faulted Lewis-McChord's leadership and wondered why it "keeps happening over and over here."

McClatchy Newspapers answered some of the most pressing questions about the base:

Q: Does Lewis-McChord have a problem with soldier suicides and post-traumatic stress disorder?

A: Nobody would say "no." 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-wide trend. Active-duty Army suicides increased from 80 in 2003 to 164 in 2011.

In 2010, 22 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, took their own lives. Fort Bragg is investigating its unit for injured and wounded soldiers because of a sudden rise in suicides early this year.

The Army has poured resources into halting soldier suicides, providing hotlines, confidential counseling and training for peers to recognize depression in colleagues. Still, the numbers haven't begun to decline across the service.

"The question you have to ask yourself, and this is the number that no one can prove, what would it have been if we had not focused the efforts that we focused on it?" former Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said in January.

Lewis-McChord has one of the largest staffs of behavioral health professionals in the Army, with 227 specialists. Still, soldiers fall through the gaps.

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 Tacoma News Tribune report last year. He appeared stable when he spoke to a psychiatrist at Madigan Army Medical Center, an Army investigation showed.

While acknowledging it's not perfect, Rodriguez expressed confidence in the system used to screen soldiers for brain trauma and PTSD before they deploy.

He acknowledged that the crush of 18,000 soldiers who returned to Lewis-McChord from combat in the summer of 2010 delayed the delivery of some care to soldiers.

Q: Do records show a disproportionate number of crimes committed by Lewis-McChord soldiers?

A: Not if you compare it to the Army-wide rate.

To be sure, the number of crimes involving soldiers assigned to the base is higher than five years ago. There was a 27 percent increase in misdemeanors last year compared to 2010: 4,874 crimes compared to 3,812. There were nine more felonies, 319 to 310, during the same period. The previous high in that five-year period was in 2008, with 4,181 misdemeanors and 413 felonies.

But Lewis-McChord has also added several thousand more soldiers since then.

In 2010, Lewis-McChord's rate of crimes against both people and property was lower than the Army-wide rate. There were 10.33 crimes for every 1,000 soldiers based at Lewis McChord, compared to the Army-wide rate of 12.81. Lewis-McChord's property crime rate was 4.82 compared to 5.83 Army-wide.

Base officials says a growth in crime is a natural result of having more soldiers on post.

"We did not see any increase in crime that we do not normally attribute to the increase in population," Col. Bob Taradash, Lewis-McChord's top military police officer, said before he deployed in December.

But there's no question that several high-profile crimes involving past and present soldiers from the base have occurred:

_ Former soldier Benjamin Barnes gunned down a national park ranger at Mount Rainier in January.

_ Sgt. David Stewart, a medic assigned to Lewis-McChord, shot and killed his wife and 6-year-old son before turning the gun on himself in April on a freeway in Thurston County.

_ Lt. Col. Robert Underwood was charged last week with allegedly hiring a hit man to kill his wife and his superior officer and threatening to blow up the state capitol. He was assigned to a Lewis-McChord brigade tasked with training National Guard and Army Reserve units. He arrived on base in January.

Q: Are Lewis-McChord's 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. Its active-duty ranks have grown substantially since 2003, and thousands of soldiers have served multiple tours.

The number of soldiers has grown from 19,000 to 34,000 due to the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Across the whole Army, about 100,000 active-duty soldiers were added to the ranks over the last decade.

The Army has 45 combat brigades, whose soldiers are most susceptible to stress and repeated deployments. Lewis-McChord has three of those brigades, totaling about 12,000 soldiers, all built around the eight-wheeled armored Stryker vehicles.

Rodriguez said the number of soldiers coming and going from Lewis-McChord is similar to other major Army bases.

The most-deployed front-line infantry unit at Lewis-McChord is the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Brigade, the Army's original Stryker brigade. It is on its fourth tour of at least one year — the same as 14 other brigades across the Army. Bales served with the 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, says the rampage is "clearly a wakeup 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, an Army prosecutor who worked at Fort Lewis from 2004 to 2007, before it became a joint base, questioned the idea that multiple deployments lead to violent crime. He pointed out that there were four murder cases during his time at the local base, and three involved soldiers who never deployed or only deployed for a short time.

Barnes, who shot and killed the Mount Rainier ranger and then drowned in a creek, is another case where multiple deployments were not a factor. Barnes did one tour of Iraq and it's not clear if he saw much combat; he worked as a radio and communications equipment repairman.

Q: Is Lewis-McChord leadership to blame?

A: Suicide and behavioral health problems at Lewis-McChord indicate lapses in leadership, said James Dubik, a retired three-star general who commanded Fort Lewis from 2004-2007 and now works for a think tank, the Institute for the Study of War.

"These are major incidents and they are indicative of some kind of serious problem that exists on (base)," he said.

But he noted that the nation's military leaders and politicians decided not to grow the nation's ground forces enough to fight two protracted wars. The nation has asked "too much of too few Americans for too long" and the combat stress resulting from multiple tours is a "natural consequence of having to go to that well too often."

Pinpointing these problems internally will be difficult because they are complex and distributed throughout the organization, Dubik said. He said the base's leadership, from junior non-commissioned officers to generals, must come together with elected leaders, health professionals and family members to help Lewis-McChord find gaps and fix mistakes.

"It's like a thunderstorm," he said. "You can't say one thing causes a thunderstorm. A set of things have to come together to create a thunderstorm."

The base's leadership is fragmented, however.

Most of its front-line units, including the three Stryker brigades, answer to I Corps, which is set up to command tens of thousands of soldiers in a war. Madigan Army Medical Center reports to Western Regional Medical Command. Green Berets and Rangers get their orders from Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla.

A Lewis-McChord spokesman said the diffuse organizational structure is not different from other major bases.

However, a major change in the last three years is that two successive commanding generals have spent significant time away from the base. Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby was tapped to oversee U.S. military operations in Iraq in 2009-2010; Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti was given the same assignment in Afghanistan in 2011-12. While Jacoby and Scaparrotti were gone, commanders with fewer stars on their shoulders stayed behind to run the base.

Q: Does the "kill team" case shed any light on problems at Lewis-McChord?

A: In that case, in which four soldiers received prison sentences for staging the deaths of three Afghan noncombatants, all the defendants were deemed fit for combat at Lewis-McChord. The same was true of Bales, who spent his whole career assigned to the base.

In both incidents, the soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan at small bases away from their usual leadership.

The "kill team" defendants belonged to the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which spent two years preparing to fight in Iraq before learning just seven months before its departure that it would go to Afghanistan instead.

Around the same time, Bales went to Iraq with the 3rd Brigade. Both brigades deployed in 2009-10.

Among the three Lewis-McChord brigades that went to war that year, the 3rd Brigade had the least amount of time at home to recuperate. Its mission planning fluctuated throughout 2011 as the Pentagon prepared for a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan. At a May 2011 training exercise seven months before their next deployment, most 3rd Brigade soldiers weren't sure whether they'd be on their way to Afghanistan that winter. The order came at the end of August.

Also, the 5th Brigade "kill team" soldiers served in a 30-man platoon that was splintered from its normal 120-man company. They were on a forward base reporting to leaders with whom they didn't train, and who didn't know them.

Likewise, Bales was serving at a Special Forces outpost, on a mission apart from the soldiers with whom he'd trained for his deployment.

(Hill and Ashton report for the Tacoma, Wash., News Tribune)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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