A Seattle attorney defending the Joint Base Lewis-McChord staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 civilians in Afghanistan described his client Thursday as a devoted husband and decorated soldier.
John Henry Browne’s comments came as reports surfaced that marital discord and combat-related stress might have set off his client’s alleged killing spree.
Browne told The New York Times that the 38-year-old soldier, whose name he did not divulge, joined the Army shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The staff sergeant served most of his career, when not deployed, at Lewis-McChord, Browne said later at a news conference at his Seattle offices.
“He felt it was his duty to stand up for the United States,” Browne told The New York Times of his client’s reason for joining the Army.
Browne said he’d spoken to a number of the soldier’s relatives and talked to the staff sergeant himself on the phone early Thursday morning.
He declined to say whether the sergeant might have psychological or mental health issues, and he also would not say whether the soldier confessed, as military officials have reported.
“We don’t know anything about our client’s state of mind,” the lawyer said at the news conference. “We don’t know anything about the facts of the case.”
The Times, citing unnamed sources, reported Thursday that the staff sergeant “snapped,” in part because of marital troubles connected to his deployment.
The newspaper also reported the soldier had been drinking alcohol at his small outpost, a violation of military rules in combat zones.
“There will be questions raised about his emotional and mental stability for a fourth deployment,” a senior American official told the newspaper. “When it all comes out, it will be a combination of stress, alcohol and domestic issues – he just snapped.”
The account of the sergeant’s state of mind came from two other soldiers with whom he was drinking the night of the shootings, the American official told the Times. Those soldiers face disciplinary action, the newspaper reported.
At his news conference, Browne denied his client has marital problems and called reports of discord in the family “quite offensive.”
“That’s absolutely untrue,” he said. “There’s a very strong marriage. A lot of love. A lot of respect. Two children.”
Neither the soldier nor his wife was happy about his most recent deployment, Browne said.
“He was told he was not going to be redeployed,” the lawyer said. “He and his family were told his tours in the Middle East were over. Literally, overnight, that changed.”
Family members also told Browne that the soldier, a native of the Midwest, had never expressed bad feelings about Muslims or the Afghan people.
“They were totally shocked,” the lawyer said.
Browne said another soldier at the small outpost in southern Afghanistan had been gravely wounded the day before the massacre, and that other soldiers were deeply affected by it.
The lawyer said he could not confirm whether his client might have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder during his military service, but the attorney has retained an expert on the subject: Dr. Richard Adler of Seattle.
Browne and other sources have said the soldier suffered a concussive head injury in Iraq in 2010. Browne said the soldier was screened for that injury at Madigan Army Medical Center before he left for Afghanistan in December. Adler said at the news conference that he didn’t know how thorough that screening was.
The lawyer said his client had received numerous awards during his military service, been wounded twice and that “there were no prior events in his dossier indicating any kind of misbehavior.”
The American official cited by the Times also said Thursday the military was preparing to move the soldier from Kuwait, where he was flown Wednesday, to a installation in the United States, possibly Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The sergeant’s transfer is the result of a diplomatic uproar with Kuwait, which learned the soldier was being housed there via news reports.
“When they learned about it, the Kuwaitis blew a gasket and wanted him out of there,” the officials told the newspaper.
The sergeant allegedly left his post over the weekend and attacked the villagers as they slept, killing women and children and setting fire to some of their bodies.
He reportedly returned to his post and surrendered.
The soldier’s wife and children reportedly have been moved from their home to another location for their protection.
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