For the last two years, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state has become accustomed to the media’s glare, and not just for its contributions of thousands of troops to the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The sprawling installation between Mount Rainier and Puget Sound, home to both Army and Air Force commands, has played a critical role in the wars, providing everything from infantry brigades built around Stryker armored vehicles, to giant transport aircraft, to elite Special Forces and Rangers units.
Lewis-McChord, the biggest base on the U.S. West Coast, also has been the focus of headlines and government inquiries into suicides, deaths and crimes by soldiers based there. Now it’s attracting international attention because a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant deployed from the base is accused of killing at least 16 civilians in Afghanistan villages.
“Every base has its own problems, but no other base has had as much bad press as this base,” said Jorge Gonzalez, 32, executive director of Coffee Strong, a veteran-run nonprofit coffee shop in Lakewood adjacent to Interstate 5 near the base.
It’s an unfair rap, Washington’s governor said yesterday.
Leaders at the base care “very much about its returning military personnel, and making sure that they are doing it right,” Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, told reporters in Seattle. Base officials have learned the lessons from Vietnam War veterans and are trying to help troops adjust to their jobs and families, she said. “So I’m not here to say that some blame goes to Fort Lewis.”
‘Most Troubled Base’
Lewis-McChord was called the U.S. military’s “most troubled base” in 2010 by the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper.
Among the cases cited by the newspaper was the killing of three Afghans in separate incidents in 2010 involving troops from the base. Four soldiers pleaded or were found guilty, and seven others were convicted of lesser crimes from drug use to assaulting soldiers, Army Major Christopher Ophardt said yesterday in an e-mail.
Army spokesman George Wright at the Pentagon said in response to an e-mail inquiry that he didn’t have details about how crimes committed by soldiers based at Lewis-McChord compared with those at other facilities.
Suicides at the base rose to 12 last year from nine each in 2009 and 2010, Ophardt said. The Army Medical Command is investigating whether the base’s medical center improperly reversed post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses in soldiers.
Lewis-McChord, home to the Army’s I Corps, the Air Force’s 62nd Airlift Wing, and other units, employs 43,000 military personnel and 15,000 civilians, according to Joe Piek, a base spokesman.
The base supports 56,000 family members and contributes $4 billion a year to the regional economy, he said yesterday in an interview.
With multiple tours of duty for many of its troops, the base has accounted for 115,000 deployments of active-duty, reserve and National Guard personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. Deaths of troops from the base include 201 in Iraq and 76 in Afghanistan.
“The problem is our military is getting tired,” said state Senator Mike Carrell, a Republican who represents Lakewood. “We’ve been at war for 10 years. Some of these guys have been deployed four or five times.”
Even then, most soldiers return to their lives “seamlessly” after a deployment, Carrell said in an interview.
In a city such as Lakewood, with a population of 50,000, and “you’ve one person that does a murder, does that reflect on the whole city?” Carrell said.
Units belonging to the Army’s I Corps have a storied history that includes liberating the Philippines from Japan during World War II and guarding the Korean Demilitarized Zone at the end of the Korean War.
Reports of trouble at the base cited in Stars and Stripes included the 2010 case of Army Specialist Brandon Barrett, 28, a Lewis-McChord soldier who was shot dead in a Salt Lake City parking lot after he shot and injured a police officer. In September of that year, Robert Quinones, 29, a former soldier who had been based at Lewis-McChord, held three people at gunpoint at Fort Stewart, Georgia, demanding mental-health treatment.
In January, a former Lewis-McChord soldier, Benjamin Colton Barnes, 24, killed a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park. He had left military service in 2009, Ophardt said.
Hit Man Case
Yesterday, an Army lieutenant colonel assigned to Lewis-McChord was arraigned after he told his girlfriend that he’d paid $150,000 to a hit man to kill his superior officer and his estranged wife, according to documents filed by prosecutors in Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma. Robert Underwood pleaded not guilty to felony harassment, the Associated Press said. Underwood didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on the charges against him.
Gonzalez of Coffee Strong, an Army veteran who served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 in the same unit as the Afghan shooting suspect, blames the incidents on the military, which he said is not providing adequate access to mental-health services.
“A lot of chain-of-command does not like their soldiers to be going out to seek health services, behavior health,” said Gonzalez, whose store doubles as a gathering spot and clearinghouse for soldiers seeking help. “They have that stigma in the military where you’re seen as less of a soldier or a man if you speak up and say there’s something wrong with you.”
Gonzalez also cited repeated deployments of soldiers from the base to Iraq and Afghanistan. The suspect in the killing had served three tours in Iraq before he was sent to Afghanistan in December.
“They are sending out traumatized troops,” said Ramon Nacanaynay, a former Air Force staff sergeant, who stood in a heavy downpour on a highway overpass in Lakewood outside Lewis-McChord in what he said was a vigil for Afghans killed in war and support for U.S. troops.
Nacanaynay, a teacher from Puyallup, Washington, spoke in an interview March 12 on Freedom Bridge, an I-5 overpass whose railing is lined with yellow ribbons near the entrance to the base’s Madigan Army Medical Center.
Medical Center Inquiry
Questions about inadequate help for troubled soldiers were reinforced last month when a psychiatrist at the medical center was found to have cautioned against “rubber-stamping” troops with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Soldiers with the condition may receive treatment costing as much as $1.5 million during their lifetimes, which could bankrupt the Army and Veterans Affairs Departments, according to a memo from an Army ombudsman provided by the office of U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington. The Army has suspended the head of Madigan pending the investigation of whether the center withheld PTSD diagnoses.
Murray, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called for the probe into Madigan’s mental-health screening procedures. She said in an interview last month that after 10 years of war, the military still has “no consistent diagnosis, no consistent tools and different levels of professionals” working on solutions.
About 1,600 troops who were screened by the Madigan center may have received a mental-health misdiagnosis and are being reevaluated now, Matt McAlvanah, Murray’s spokesman, said in an interview. About 285 troops whose PTSD diagnoses were changed are being screened again, and the military is trying to locate the rest, McAlvanah said.
Mental-health services offered at the base aren’t beyond the reach of troops, if only they ask for help, said Brian Welsh, 27, an Army sergeant stationed at Lewis-McChord who lives in nearby Olympia. The base is no different from others, he said.
“I’d say it’s more people not using the resources to get help,” he said. “They just bury it, and then when they go again they lose it.”
The Afghan shooting suspect trained as an infantryman and was a qualified sniper, according to a U.S. defense official familiar with the case. The alleged gunman’s job in Afghanistan was providing “force protection” for a Special Forces compound, said a second official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because charges haven’t been filed.
Before his duty in Afghanistan, the soldier’s most recent tour in Iraq ended in 2010, an official said.
The soldier suffered a head injury in Iraq due to a non-combat vehicle rollover accident, recovered and was deemed fit for deployment, one of the officials said.
Last weekend, the soldier hiked to a village 800 meters (0.5 miles) south of his base near Kandahar city and then to another village 500 meters north of the base to commit the killings, the Army said in the memo to Congress.
The soldier’s wife and two children have been moved inside Lewis-McChord from off-base housing for their safety, the official said.
The Afghan killings worry Vinessa Scott, 22, an Army specialist who’s awaiting her first deployment to Afghanistan, she said yesterday.
“I’m really nervous,” Scott said in an interview at a McDonald’s Corp. restaurant near the base. “We’re over there to take out the bad people, not the good people. It’s scary. I don’t know what to expect when I go.”