On Friday Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Forces Command at Fort Bragg, called a press conference at Lewis-McChord to refute reports that JBLM, the largest military base on the West Coast, is "the most troubled base in the military," a title accorded to it by Stars and Stripes in 2010.  --  "Rodriguez called the headlines 'unfortunate' and said there’s nothing that sets Lewis-McChord apart from other major bases as the entire Army faces challenges sending soldiers on multiple combat deployments," the News Tribune (Tacoma, WA) reported.[1]  --  Nevertheless, Gen. Rodriguez announced that "the Army is conducting a routine assessment of whether changes in Lewis-McChord’s command structure are warranted due to its significant growth.  He said a decision is expected in the 'near future,'" according to Christian Hill and Adam Ashton.  --  But the two reporters shied away from answering the question they posed:  Is there something wrong with Joint Base Lewis-McChord? ...



By Christian Hill and Adam Ashton

News Tribune
(Tacoma, WA)
March 18, 2012


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 allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in a March 11 rampage.  Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, 38, of Lake Tapps faces murder charges.  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.

Major international newspapers and television networks connected the massacre to other events at Lewis-McChord:  a record number of suicides, several investigations into the treatment of soldiers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a string of high-profile crimes involving present and past local soldiers.

Invariably, they resurrected a label that military newspaper *Stars and Stripes* pinned on the base south of Tacoma in 2010:  that of the “most troubled base in the military.”

The coverage prompted Gen. David Rodriguez, the head of U.S. Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., to call a press conference Friday during a visit to Lewis-McChord so that he could refute the reports.  His command is responsible for the training and readiness of more than 800,000 Army active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers.

Rodriguez called the headlines “unfortunate” and said there’s nothing that sets Lewis-McChord apart from other major bases as 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 local base should get a free pass.  A former Lewis-McChord commander says escalating combat stress from serial deployments combined with problems in leadership on the base and in the nation’s capital have contributed to the troubles.

An Army veteran who runs a Lakewood coffee shop that promotes peace and assists soldiers also faulted Lewis-McChord’s leadership.  While acknowledging the Army as a whole is facing problems, Coffee Strong executive director Jorge Gonzalez wonders why it “keeps happening over and over here” and called for a congressional investigation to sort it out.

So is Lewis-McChord “the most troubled base?”  Is it “a base on the brink,” as the *Los Angeles Times* has claimed?

The questions are more complicated than labels can convey.  The *News Tribune* looked beyond the headlines in an attempt to provide some answers.

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

Nobody would dare say “no” to this question.  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 Armywide trend.  Active-duty Army suicides increased from 80 in 2003 to 164 in 2011.  Individual bases saw different surges at different times.

In 2010, 22 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, took their own lives.  Fort Bragg, N.C., 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 have not 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 in that safety net.

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

Lately, Madigan has been in the spotlight because of a forensic psychiatry team that reviewed PTSD diagnoses for soldiers seeking medical retirements.  Sometimes the team caught soldiers in lies; other times it appeared to be overly skeptical of soldiers’ testimony about their combat experiences.  The Army is reviewing 285 cases of soldiers who passed through the unit since 2007, and it has overruled six diagnoses.

The Army is carrying out at least five investigations related to the Madigan diagnoses.  It has placed Madigan commander Col. Dallas Homas on administrative leave and limited the work two other doctors can do at the hospital.

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

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

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

Not if you compare it to the Armywide rate.

To be sure, the number of crimes involving soldiers assigned to the Army-Air Force 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 Armywide rate.  There were 10.33 crimes for every 1,000 soldiers based at Lewis McChord, compared to the Armywide rate of 12.81.  Lewis-McChord’s property crime rate was 4.82 compared to 5.83 Armywide.

Lewis-McChord spokesman J.C. Mathews said the base received that data from the office of the Army’s top cop, the provost marshal general, and that statistics from 2011 were unavailable.

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, told the *News Tribune* before he deployed in December.

But there’s no way to ignore several recent high-profile crimes involving past and present soldiers from the base.  They include:

• Former soldier Brandon 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 hitman 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.

Some observers doubt that violent crimes at Lewis-McChord are a new phenomenon.

Christopher Pawloski, an Army prosecutor who worked at Fort Lewis from 2004 to 2007, said his research from that time shows a history of murder and manslaughter cases at Fort Lewis prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He recalls a colleague telling him one time:  “If you wanted to deal with murder, you come up here,” although he wasn’t sure whether he was joking.

* Are Lewis-McChord’s significant growth and deployment schedule to blame for its problems?

Lewis-McChord is the largest military base on the West Coast, with more than 40,000 active-duty soldiers and airmen.  It secured its status when it became a joint Army and Air Force base in 2010.

Its active-duty ranks have grown substantially since 2003, and thousands of those soldiers have served multiple tours in parts of the world where it can be difficult to tell friend from foe.

The number of troops has grown from 19,000 to 34,000 due to the demands of the wars and restructuring by the Army to better fight them.

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, totalling about 12,000 soldiers and all built around the eight-wheeled armored Stryker vehicles.

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

And indeed, Army statistics show local units haven’t seen a more intensive deployment schedule than the typical combat brigade since the end of 2001.

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.

The two other Lewis-McChord Stryker brigades have had two or fewer deployments.

No local brigades are among the five Armywide that have each deployed five times since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

Before he was sent home to face murder charges, Bales served with 3rd Brigade on all of its deployments -- three to Iraq and now 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 Pawloski, the former Fort Lewis prosecutor, 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.

* Is Lewis-McChord leadership to blame?  Who are the leaders and where does the buck stop?

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.  He now works for a Washington, D.C.-based military 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 a major policy decision outside local control also plays a major role:  Top military leaders and politicians decided not to grow the nation’s ground forces enough to fight two protracted wars.

Instead, 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.”

Rodriguez said during his visit he had a “lot of confidence” in Lewis-McChord’s leadership and that its command and discipline is “very, very effective.”

The leadership is fragmented, however, and historically always has been.

Most of the frontline Lewis-McChord 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, which evaluates and cares for service members throughout the region, reports to Western Regional Medical Command.

And finally, Green Berets and Rangers who are based at Lewis-McChord look across the country for 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 local base.

Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby was tapped to oversee U.S. military operations in Iraq in 2009-10; Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti was given the same assignment in Afghanistan in 2011-12.

The reason: Jacoby and Scaparrotti doubled as commanders of I Corps, which was called up for combat duty in 2007.  Prior to that time, I Corps had stayed home while the Army’s other three corps rotated the duty of running modern-day wars.  I Corps had not deployed to a combat zone since the Korean War.

While Jacoby and Scaparrotti were gone, commanders with fewer stars on their shoulders stayed behind to run the base.

Dubik, the last general to stay at Lewis-McChord throughout his command, said he didn’t know if I Corps’ deployments are a factor in the problems at Lewis-McChord but said it’s something to look into.

Rodriguez, the four-star general who held a news conference Friday, said the Army is conducting a routine assessment of whether changes in Lewis-McChord’s command structure are warranted due to its significant growth.  He said a decision is expected in the “near future.”

* Does the Stryker “kill team” case, combined with the latest incident of a rogue soldier, shed any light on problems at Lewis-McChord?

The two Afghan war crimes stand out as heinous events in the Army’s history, and both were born within Joint Base Lewis-McChord units.

In the “kill team” 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 local base.

The incidents share some similarities in how deployment orders came together and in how the alleged murderers were stationed at small bases out of the sight of their normal leadership.

The “kill team” defendants belonged to the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.  That unit 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 were not 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 did not train and who did not know them.

Bales, likewise, was serving on a mission apart from the soldiers with whom he had trained for his deployment.  He was at a Special Forces outpost working with those elite troops instead of with his fellow 3rd Brigade soldiers who knew him better.

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