Afghan shooting marks latest scandal for troubled US base | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 16.03.2012
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Afghan shooting marks latest scandal for troubled US base

What triggered a US soldier to massacre 16 unarmed Afghan villagers? US media look for answers at the soldier's home military base, Lewis-McChord, in Washington. The facility has been plagued by scandals and tragedy.

The Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington is home to some 100,000 soldiers and civilian personnel. It is the largest military base in the United States - and has the worst reputation.

Following the massacre in Afghanistan, US media reported that once again, a war crime involved a soldier from Lewis-McChord. The largest US troop contingencies deployed to Iraq and to Afghanistan came from Lewis-McChord.

The base made the headlines in 2010 as home to a so-called kill team. Four soldiers from the base have in the meantime been found guilty of hunting down civilians in Afghanistan like animals and killing three people. Subsequently they would pose with the fingers and teeth of their victims in front of the camera. In November 2011, a military court sentenced the alleged ringleader of the commando, 26-year-old staff sergeant Calvin Gibbs, to life in prison. But he will be eligible for parole in eight-and-a-half years.

Mental trauma

The kill team's actions, which made the Lewis-McChord base known to the public, were symptomatic for the problems of the US Army, said Hal Bernton, a reporter from the Seattle Times. The investigation report about the kill team said the consumption of heroin and marijuana in combination with sleeping aids and amphetamines were a common drug cocktail for numerous soldiers in Afghanistan. Many soldiers stationed at the base return from several Iraq and Afghanistan deployments not only physically but also severely mentally traumatized.

US soldiers inspect the site of suicide attack in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010. A suicide bomber attacked an armored car carrying a district chief in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, killing himself and one civilian bystander, Afghan authorities said. (AP Photo/Allauddin Khan)

Close to 90,000 US troops are stationed in Afghanistan

"There's been an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder," said Hal Bernton, one of the leading experts about the base. "We've also had issues with traumatic brain injury."

This is the result of exploding bombs, grenades and booby traps. But according to Bernton, doctors at the base often only have one point in mind: getting the soldiers back to Afghanistan as quickly as possible. The physicians have even confessed to using a test to determine a trauma which isn't even suitable.

And even if the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder cannot be avoided, it still lands in the garbage can, Bernton said. He had experienced that doctors who had certified a soldier's mental disorder all of a sudden said: "Oh my goodness! It was just a mistake. You're perfectly healthy!"

Demanding change

This has led to significant frustration and disappointment for many soldiers at Lewis-McChord. Last year, 12 soldiers from the base committed suicide. Many directed their aggression elsewhere, for example by threatening their families to kill them. One soldier shot four visitors in Washington's Mount Rainier National Park and killed a ranger.

According to information by US public broadcaster NPR, the soldiers are for the first time determined to no longer accept the targeted overturning of a diagnosis by military doctors. NPR said 85 soldiers in the Lewis-McChord military hospital had forced the exam for post-traumatic stress disorder to be repeated.

But the latest incident in Afghanistan has sparked political interest. In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Democrat congressman Bill Pascrell requested details of the accused soldier's injury, diagnosis, and when and how he was returned to combat duty.

"I am trying to find out basically whether there was a premature 'OK' on this guy," Pascrell said in a telephone interview with Reuters news agency. "This is not to excuse any heinous acts; we are all sickened by it. But dammit, we all have an obligation to prevent these things. If this soldier fell through the cracks, does that mean that others have?"

Author: Ralph Sina, Washington / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge

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