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The Impact of War
2:00 pm
Tue March 13, 2012

Lewis McChord Base Has History Of Troubles

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There was new fallout today from Sunday's shooting rampage in Afghanistan, allegedly by a U.S. soldier, that killed 16 villagers. West of Kandahar, insurgents opened fire at two brothers of the Afghan president as they left a memorial service for those villagers. One Afghan soldier was killed and the Taliban claimed responsibility. In Jalalabad, hundreds of students held protests. And in Washington today, President Obama said the U.S. takes Sunday's rampage as seriously as if it were our own children, he said, who were murdered.

BLOCK: The soldier allegedly responsible for that rampage is from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle. The base has a long history of troubles overseas and at home.

NPR's Martin Kaste has been looking into that part of the story and he joins us from Seattle. And, Martin, we don't know the soldier's name yet. But you are learning a few things about the man who's accused of carrying out this rampage in Afghanistan. What have you found out so far?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, we know that he is definitely career - he's been in the service for 11 years. He's 38 years old. He's a staff sergeant. And he's a family man - apparently he's married and has two children.

I think what people are really focused on right now at Joint Base Lewis-McChord is the fact that he, like many people here, has been overseas multiple times. He served in Iraq three times and now this stint in Afghanistan is his fourth deployment. He also, in Iraq, apparently suffered traumatic brain injury in a vehicle accident, although we really know no details about how severe that injury was or what role, if any, it played in this incident now in Afghanistan.

But the fact that he served overseas multiple times, that really resonates for people here because, as this decade has dragged on, that's a common condition here.

BLOCK: Martin, we mentioned that this base has a long history of troubles; terrible incidents both at home and overseas. Tell us more about those.

KASTE: There's just been this litany of terrible headlines coming out of the base. One case, soldiers robbing a bank, a spike in suicides - they broke a record last year, dramatic suicide situations on the freeway outside the base. And family members being mistreated, in some cases killed or tortured. It's just one thing after another.

And, of course, the highest profile case was the so-called kill team, this group of soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord who were court-martialed for killing Afghans civilians for sport. So that has just developed this real sense around here that there's something going on.

BLOCK: Martin, what are people saying? Do they figure that that's an unusually high number of violent incidents that are associated with this one base, Joint Base Lewis-McChord?

KASTE: Well, these incidents are so disparate that it's hard to stack one base up against the other statistically. And officials on base point out, quite rightly, that other bases have seen spikes in crime when large groups of soldiers come back from overseas deployment. At the same time, Joint Base Lewis-McChord has had some trouble, especially in the area of mental health.

There's a situation right now at Madigan, the hospital on base, where the staff have been accused of being insensitive to diagnoses of PTSD; that soldiers basically have been denied their diagnosis, perhaps because the hospital wants to save money. And now, 285 current and former patients have won the right to be re-evaluated for PTSD because of that situation. So that leads many here to believe that there is a culture of indifference towards mental health problems.

BLOCK: Martin, you spent time today in the community around the base. There's another deployment of soldiers who are supposed to leave for Afghanistan soon, I gather. What's the mood like? What are the soldiers talking about?

KASTE: Well, first of all, I was struck by how few of them actually knew the details yet. They're very busy. Getting ready for deployment is a full-time job. They're running around, getting things organized. I had to tell them in some cases what had happened. But for those who did know what had happened, there was a sense of just utter disbelief; not understanding how a fellow soldier could just walk off a post like that and do this.

You know, just from the point of view of discipline, of mentality, and just how that can happen, there's a sense that this is almost a surreal situation. But now, they're heading into Afghanistan, another 4,500 or so of them, and they're going to have to deal with the consequences.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Martin Kaste in Seattle. Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.